Jurisdiction — Who’s the Law Where?
A writer asks for clarification of the jurisdiction – that is, the authority – of city, county, and state law enforcement agencies. Variations abound, but a few general definitions apply:
- city law enforcement agencies, usually called the Name-the-City Police Department, have authority within the city limits. In larger cities, police departments run their own jails, while in others, detention services are contracted to the county. A very small town may contract with the county sheriff for full-time or part-time services, e.g., for weekend or vacation shifts.
- county agencies, typically called Name-the-County Sheriff’s Department or Office, have jurisdiction in the unincorporated areas of the county – that is, everywhere except the incorporated cities and towns. The term sheriff derives from the medieval English shire, or county, and reeve, or official, meaning a local official responsible for executing legal processes and court orders.
- state agencies, home to most variation. Some states have state police departments with broad investigative authority; others have highway patrol agencies, whose authority is generally limited to traffic investigations and violations. Most states also have some kind of criminal investigation agency that assists local agencies, especially those in smaller towns, or when a key member of a department has a conflict of interest.
Another option – a consolidated city-county department – works well when a city occupies the bulk of a county, leaving the county with a law enforcement obligation, often over widely scattered areas, but a limited tax base to support its budget.
In many areas, 911 and dispatch services are consolidated to avoid duplication and improve coordination of law enforcement, emergency medical services, and fire protection.
Inter-agency cooperation is a must, and takes many forms. When a chase approaches jurisdictional limits, nearby agencies are notified and asked to stand ready to assist; a suspect may be arrested in one community but turned over to another where he will be held and tried. Major case investigations often cross city or county lines. While a Seattle police officer, for example, could legally question a suspect in Bellevue, professional courtesy dictates that local law enforcement be notified – particularly helpful if the situation deteriorates into violence or requires an arrest. Other interagency cooperation is more formal, via written agreement.
Joint task forces are formed to address shared problems. Several counties in northwest Montana formed a Joint Drug Task Force to deal with regional drug manufacturing and distribution; it also includes representatives of ICE, the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement agency, and tribal police.
Photo: This image of the old Flathead County Courthouse, now a county administration building that sits literally in the middle of the road, comes from the Montana State Historical Society collection of historic postcards.