What is Yellowstone’s ‘Zone of Death’ and why are Idaho legislators talking about it?

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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) – Idaho legislators discussed an ominous-sounding topic Thursday: a strip of Idaho wilderness known as the Yellowstone “Zone of Death.”

Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, introduced a House Joint Memorial that urges Congress to close what some have argued is a loophole that would make it possible to commit crimes, including murder, in the portion of Yellowstone National Park that extends into Idaho — without repercussions.

The measure, which Nash presented to the Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee, would ask Congress to change the federal district court jurisdiction for the Idaho sliver of the park.

WHAT IS THE YELLOWSTONE ZONE OF DEATH?

Nash started his presentation by clarifying that this is a legal theory, not a conspiracy theory.

RELATED | Some Idaho lawmakers want Congress to end Yellowstone’s ‘zone of death’

Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt first introduced the idea of the Zone of Death in a 2005 paper called “The Perfect Crime” that was published in the Georgetown Law Review. Kalt pointed out that the federal District Court of Wyoming includes Yellowstone National Park, including the small portions of the park in Idaho and Montana. It’s the only district that includes multiple states.

Kalt argued that a person could commit federal crimes in the roughly 50 square miles of Yellowstone that are in Idaho because the Constitution would require a trial with a jury made up of residents of the state and the district where the crime was committed. But no one lives in the Idaho portion of Yellowstone, which means no impartial jury could ever be assembled.

Since Kalt’s paper was published, the idea of the Zone of Death has taken on a life of its own. A similar concept has been featured in the show “Yellowstone,” and inspired movies and books. Numerous articles have been written on the topic, either rebutting Kalt’s arguments or promoting his theory. A TikTok video on the Zone of Death garnered nearly 3 million likes at the end of 2020.

@chrisfahmy Reply to @the.real.rkelly – OKAY THEN… I’m gonna make sure I never randomly go walking there…. 😅😅😅 #sokeepup #tiktokpartner #learnontiktok ♬ Oh No – Kreepa

Nash said he heard about the theory in law school and said theories about the Zone of Death tend to re-emerge when crimes occur near the area. Nash mentioned that recent high-profile disappearances near the area — possibly including Gabby Petito, a young woman reportedly killed by her boyfriend near Grand Teton National Park — brought the topic back.

RELATED | FBI: Brian Laundrie claimed responsibility for Gabby Petito’s death

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Nash told committee members he’s not aware of any crimes in the area that have gone unprosecuted.

WHAT WOULD IDAHO LEGISLATION MEAN FOR YELLOWSTONE?

The memorial asks Congress to close the loophole by placing the Idaho portion of Yellowstone under the District Court of Idaho. The area would remain part of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Wyoming, rather than the 9th Circuit, which includes Idaho.

If adopted, the legislation wouldn’t change any Idaho laws. It would be up to Congress to change the federal designation.

Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, asked Nash whether he thinks Congress actually would act on the memorial.

“We can try our darndest,” Nash replied.

The legislation was referred out of committee with a “do pass” recommendation.

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