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Madison Czopek
By Madison Czopek June 4, 2021

No, murder is not legal in a ‘zone of death’ in Yellowstone National Park

If Your Time is short

• Murder is not legal anywhere in the United States.

• A provision in the Sixth Amendment might make prosecuting felonies committed within the Idaho portion of Yellowstone National Park more complicated.

• No felonies in the "zone of death" have been prosecuted, so it remains unclear exactly how they would be handled.

If you believe social media users, there is one area of Yellowstone National Park that you should avoid at all costs when planning your summer vacation. 

"There is a place in the U.S. where murder is legal," a TikTok user claimed in a video. 

In the video, a man claims that a "zone of death" exists in Yellowstone National Park. As he speaks, a map of Yellowstone and the state borders within the park appears behind him. 

"You see this little 50-mile strip of land in Idaho?" he asks viewers. "That is where murder is legal, and here's why. In all criminal proceedings in the U.S., the jury has to live in both the state and the district in which a crime took place. In other words, if there’s any crime that happens in this little strip of land, the jury in the trial has to be people that live in this little strip of land. The problem is that no one lives there, so the case would just get thrown out."

So, has this TikTok user discovered a foolproof scheme to get away with murder? 

No. The TikTok video simply called a longstanding constitutional mystery back into the spotlight. 

Legally, things are a bit complicated in a 50-square-mile region of Idaho that has been labeled the "zone of death." But, no, murder isn’t legal there.

A scenario laid out in ‘The Perfect Crime’

In 2005, Brian Kalt, a Michigan State University law professor, published a paper titled "The Perfect Crime," in which he explored the idea that "there is a 50-square-mile swath of Idaho in which one might be able to commit felonies with impunity." He dubbed it the "Zone of Death."

Kalt argued that this peculiarity existed "because of the intersection of a poorly drafted statute with a clear but neglected constitutional provision: the Sixth Amendment’s Vicinage Clause."

The Sixth Amendment says, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed."

While this requirement is typically not an issue, Yellowstone National Park presents a unique challenge. The park is primarily in Wyoming, but it spreads into Idaho and Montana.

In terms of federal judicial districts, Congress assigned the entire park to the District of Wyoming. 

So, what would happen if, hypothetically, someone were to commit a felony or a Class A misdemeanor in Idaho’s small strip of Yellowstone National Park, where the federal government has jurisdiction? (Kalt noted that his analysis doesn’t apply to lesser crimes, where the accused isn’t guaranteed a jury trial.)

Keeping the Sixth Amendment provision in mind, the jury for a federal criminal trial would need to be made up of individuals who live in Idaho, and who fall within the federal District of Wyoming — that is people, who live on that same swath of Yellowstone. 

But no one lives there.

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As a result, Kalt argued, no jury could ever be assembled that would satisfy the Sixth Amendment provisions. 

Additionally, Kalt said that only the defendants in federal criminal cases can request a change of venue.

In his paper, Kalt theorized that such a case could be dismissed: "Assuming that you do not feel like consenting to trial in Cheyenne, you should go free."

That’s the argument in the TikTok video, too. But in practice, it’s not quite that simple.

Murder remains illegal

When PolitiFact reached out to Kalt about the TikTok user’s claims, he emphasized that the claim that murder was legal in the so-called "zone of death" was inaccurate.

The loophole "does not make murder legal in the zone," Kalt said. "It just presents a reason why it might be harder to prosecute someone for it successfully. But breaking the law is breaking the law, whatever happens to the person who does it." 

Since Kalt’s paper was published, the "zone of death" has received more attention. It inspired the 2008 novel "Free Fire" and "Population Zero," a 2016 horror movie

Kalt lobbied Congress to change the law so that the Idaho and Montana portions of Yellowstone fell within their respective state’s districts. But the legal loophole remains unclosed.

To date, no felonies in the "zone of death" have been prosecuted. 

When a hunter illegally shot an elk while standing in the Montana portion of Yellowstone and argued for his right to a trial with a jury made up of people who lived in that region, Vox reported that "the court dismissed the argument out of hand." The hunter later took a plea agreement that prevented him from appealing on Sixth Amendment grounds.

It remains unclear exactly how justice would be pursued for crimes committed in the "zone of death."

"I don’t think the prosecution would just give up," Kalt said. 

He pointed out that the loophole has limitations that "sensationalistic sources like the TikTok video ignore," and noted that his argument was theoretical.

"The theory is just a theory," he said. "So people shouldn’t talk about it like it is some well-settled precedent." 

Our ruling

A TikTok user claimed, "There is a place in the U.S. where murder is legal."

A provision in the Sixth Amendment might make prosecuting some crimes committed within the Idaho portion of Yellowstone National Park complicated. It hasn’t been done before, and it’s unclear exactly what would happen.

But murder isn’t legal in that region or anywhere else. 

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

TikTok video, May 19, 2021

Vox, "Yellowstone has a 50 square mile ‘Zone of Death’ where you can get away with murder," Oct. 29, 2016

YouTube, "How you could get away with murder in Yellowstone’s ‘Zone of Death,’" Oct. 29, 2016

Atlas Obscura, "Yellowstone's Zone of Death," accessed June 4, 2021

USA Today, "Fact check: Claims of a conviction-free 'zone of death' in Yellowstone National Park need context," March 31, 2021

Snopes, "Does the Lawless Yellowstone ‘Zone of Death’ Exist?" Jan. 27, 2021

Email interview with Brian Kalt, a Michigan State University law professor and the Harold Norris Faculty Scholar, June 2-4, 2021

George Town Law Journal, "The Perfect Crime," March 25, 2005

Cornell Law School, "Sixth Amendment," accessed June 4, 2021

Cornell Law School, "16 U.S. Code § 24.Jurisdiction over park; fugitives from justice," accessed June 4, 2021

The Experiment podcast, "The loophole," Feb. 4, 2021, "Free Fire," accessed June 4, 2021

L.A. Times, "‘Population Zero,’ debuting at film festival, explores the Zone of Death," April 22, 2016

SSRN, "Tabloid Constitutionalism: How a Bill Doesn't Become a Law," May 23, 2008

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No, murder is not legal in a ‘zone of death’ in Yellowstone National Park

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