Jurisdiction — Who’s the Law Where?

flathead-kalispell-courthouseThe bonus reprints continue; this was originally published several years ago in First Draft, newsletter of the SinC Guppies chapter, then lived on my website in the Questions of the Month.

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. 

An expanded tool for law enforcement — increased access to Skype

Changes in technology are now making it easier for law enforcement to eavesdrop — with a court order — on Skype chats, though not on audio and video calls.  

This Washington Post article gives the details on expanded access by law enforcement to chats and user data, as well as some of the privacy issues.  According to the article, surveillance of the audio and video feeds still isn’t practical. I wonder how long it will take for that to change.

How will your fictional law enforcement officers use this expanded access? How will your other characters — and not just the bad guys —  respond?

Getting your officers inside

Just back from the week-long Breakout Novel Intensive workshop, in Hood River, OR. Wow. Will tell you more later this week.

Writers often want to know how to get their fictional law enforcement officers inside a building, where they may be able to see evidence of other crimes. Here’s an example from a recent Montana incident:

A 7 year-old girl was badly bitten by four dogs. Her father and another man met EMTs at a school. Sheriff’s deputies investigating the attack, and possible charges of keeping malicious dogs, wanted to know where the attack occurred. One of the men reluctantly acknowledged it occurred on his property, nearby. The deputies went to the property to investigate the attack. While there, they smelled marijuana coming from the shop–where the girl said she’d been just before the attack. The deputies obtained a search warrant for the shop, and found 71 marijuana plants, along with other marijuana. 

The deputies had a right to be on the property, both because they were investigating a vicious dog attack, and because the tenant consented. Once there, they smelled the pot, which gave them grounds for a search warrant.

According to local news accounts, the girl is recovering. The men fled; at least two have been caught and returned to the area.

4/7/12 Update: Two men –including the girl’s father — and a woman have now been arrested and formally charged with drug manufacturing and related charges; all have pled not guilty.