Updated November 23, 2015
Law enforcement officers—whether part of federal, state, or local government—generally have authority to make warrantless arrests only in their own geographic territory. This authority is sometimes called “territorial jurisdiction.” Like almost all legal rules, territorial jurisdiction has exceptions. And because each state can define territorial jurisdiction within its borders as it sees fit, the rules differ among states.
Federal and State Officers
For federal officers, territorial jurisdiction is, for the most part, straightforward: Federal officers (like FBI agents) may generally arrest for violations of federal law anywhere in the United States. For example, FBI agents in Oregon would have authority to arrest a man who robbed several banks in Portland and thereby violated the Federal Bank Robbery Act.
When it comes to state and local officers, however, the law isn’t always so clear.
In most states, law enforcement officers fall into in one of three general categories:
- city or municipal police
- county sheriff’s deputies, and
- state police.
Local police officers may typically arrest a suspect only in the city or municipality that employs them. A Chicago officer, for example, may normally arrest only in Chicago. Similarly, a deputy sheriff’s power to arrest ordinarily extends only to the county line, meaning that a Cook County Sheriff’s deputy would be confined to Cook County. But the territorial jurisdiction of state police—such as state troopers or highway patrol officers—normally spans the entire state.
Officers from one state don’t have authority to make routine arrests in another state. For instance, a Nevada Highway Patrol officer who clocks a driver in Nevada breaking the speed limit can’t follow the driver into neighboring California and make the stop. The officer has no authority to make an arrest in California.
Each state creates its own laws determining the territorial jurisdiction of its officers. That means a state is free to permit out-of-state or federal officers to arrest within the state and define the circumstances of that permission.
Permission to arrest is usually in the form of a written law that says who can make arrests in the state and under what circumstances. Many states have laws allowing cities, municipalities, and counties within the state to make similar agreements with each other. It’s common for neighboring cities and counties—especially in densely populated areas—to have written agreements by which officers may arrest in multiple jurisdictions.
Under the general rule of territorial jurisdiction, a suspect might be able to evade arrest by fleeing a pursuing officer’s territorial jurisdiction. As you might guess, to prevent criminals from escaping responsibility in this way, there’s a generally recognized exception to the territorial jurisdiction rule. It allows officers to arrest outside their jurisdiction when in “fresh pursuit” of a suspect who committed a crime within their territory. However, many states—California included—allow an out-of-state officer to cross the state line to make an arrest only when the suspect being chased has committed a felony.
The limits on the fresh pursuit exception are sometimes less stringent when applied to different territories within the state. For instance, in California, the seriousness of the offense doesn’t matter—any officer in fresh pursuit can arrest anywhere in the state so long as the offense was committed in the officer’s jurisdiction.
When officers are outside their territorial jurisdiction and witness a crime, are they powerless to make an arrest? Not necessarily. Even without authority as an agent of law enforcement, an officer may, in many instances, make a citizen’s arrest. But officers who are outside their territorial jurisdiction have no greater power to arrest than any other citizen; the arrest powers of a citizen are often more limited than those of law enforcement. For example, many states don’t allow citizen’s arrests for petty offenses, and some don’t allow them for any crime other than a felony.
Questions for Your Attorney
- If I’m arrested for a crime outside of the officer’s territorial jurisdiction, can I still be prosecuted?
- Under what circumstances is a citizen’s arrest allowed in my state?
- Do I have a right sue the police for wrongfully arresting me outside their territorial jurisdiction?
- Does an officer have to witness a crime in order to make an arrest?