Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Who has jurisdiction? FBI, local police, sheriff, state?

The movie Cherry Falls was on cable yesterday.  I've never seen this one before, but was intrigued by the movie description that a serial killer was involved.  The plot was good, but what caught my attention was the that the Sheriff's Department was investigating a series of murders of high school students that were 'virgins.'

The first murder took place near a river and the sheriff department was investigating, so I thought, okay, so the murders must be happening in the county and outside of city limits.  Then, the next murder took place inside a house, inside the city, so I thought, okay, maybe the city police relinquished jurisdiction to the county sheriff because the sheriff department had more of the same murders.

But then, the next murder takes place inside the city, and lo and behold, the FBI turns up at the house and orders the county (sheriff) investigators out of the scene.

Does anyone else have a problem with this scenario?  That would be like Secret Service Agents working a shoplifting detail at Neiman Marcus because private store security seemed incapable of catching the shoplifter.

The problem is, someone, the writer, the director, whoever, wasn't paying attention to real life.  I agree that the creative process allows for some latitude in truth, but this was a deviance from the truth that ruined the movie for me.  And of course, the FBI were very bullying and condescending to the Sheriff and his troops, which is never the case in real life.

I don't expect complete reality in television (thank goodness) but there are lines that I can't cross.

I have worked as a police department investigator for twenty years and never saw jurisdictional lines broken, or fought over.  What I have seen is a huge effort by all agencies to cooperate in investigating a crime and catching the suspect.  I have worked on numerous occasions with FBI, Secret Service, ATF and DEA.  It is one thing to ask for their assistance, or lend them assistance, and another thing to confuse who has jurisdiction.

Here is a guideline for writers to use if they are unfamiliar with who has criminal jurisdiction:

Dual Court System:  Federal and State Court
     A court's legal authority is limited by political boundaries.  Most large civil and criminal cases of federal interest are heard in federal court.  But the only criminal cases heard are those specifically described as under federal jurisdiction.  (That's why they don't do shoplifting investigations at Neiman Marcus.)  Murder is not generally a federal investigation, unless it happens to a federal officer, or on federal property.  A police department can ask for federal assistance in the investigation, such as resources, and information gathering, but ultimately the case will be tried in a local court that has jurisdiction.  The FBI will not make the arrest.

--Generally, if a crime occurs inside the city limits, it is the local police that will investigate.
--If it occurs inside the county (outside of city limits), then the sheriff department will investigate.
--The State Police have jurisdiction anywhere in the state, but most state police agencies restrict themselves to highways and state matters, but will sometimes assist very small jurisdictions that can not investigate because of a lack of resources or manpower.
--The big fish doesn't eat the little fish.  The FBI doesn't come in and take over on a local matter unless they can prove jurisdiction.

If someone takes issue with my remarks I will be grateful to be shown the error of my ways.

I would love to hear some other opinions on jurisdiction.

Rick Reed
"Standing on the Shoulders of Giants"