With 50 states, thousands of cities and towns, and over 300 million people living in them, is it any wonder why we need the thousands of federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel to keep law and order and keep us safe? Are there any limits on where these different agents and officers may exercise their authority? There are some limits, but the lines seem to blur all the time.
Jurisdiction has two important legal meanings. For one, it means having the power or authority to apply or enforce the law. For the other, it means the geographic area or boundaries where that power is good or valid. These definitions intermingle when we talk about the jurisdiction of law enforcement officers or agents.
Three Basics Levels
Federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel typically have authority or jurisdiction to act in certain geographic areas and enforce certain laws.
As a general rule, federal law enforcement agents have authority to act when federal laws are broken; federal property is involved; or federal law gives federal agents sole authority to act in a particular legal area or “field.” However, it’s also possible for federal agents to enforce state or local laws, too. So, as a practical matter, and as a general rule, they can exercise their authority anywhere in the US when necessary. For example:
- Violations of federal drug laws may allow federal DEA agents to chase and arrest suspects in several states
- Federal agents may enforce federal, state, or local criminal laws committed on federal property, such as federal buildings, national parks, and military installations. However, many times state and sometimes local authorities have the power to act, too
- Federal immigration laws give DHS, and particularly ICE, sole authority to enforce those laws, but there are programs where state and local authorities can enforce the laws, too
There’s also the US Marshals Service who track fugitives, transport prisoners and protect witnesses through the Witness Protection Program and a whole lot more.