Police Jurisdiction

Today’s topic is municipal police jurisdiction.

Michael W. Flynn
3-minute read
First, a disclaimer: Although I am an attorney, the legal information in this podcast is not intended to be a substitute for seeking personalized legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.  Further, I do not intend to create an attorney-client relationship with any listener. Today’s topic is municipal police jurisdiction.

Stephen wrote:

I was wondering, is a police officer from "city A" allowed to make a traffic stop in "city B"? Does it matter if the two cities are in the same county or not? 

The short answer is that generally a police officer only has jurisdiction within his city limits, but several exceptions apply that might give the officer jurisdiction in a specific case. Also, some states give city police jurisdiction within their county, or even in the entire state.

The reason that it is important that an officer arrests within his jurisdiction is that an arrest outside his jurisdiction is considered unlawful. The state generally will not be successful in prosecuting a defendant where the underlying arrest was unlawful.

The general rule is that an officer only has jurisdiction to effect an arrest within the geographical boundaries of the municipality for which he works. But not all states follow this rule. For example, in New York, an officer can arrest anywhere in the state so long as the officer has enough suspicion to believe that a crime has been committed.  In Texas, city officers can arrest anywhere in the county.  In some states, a city officer’s jurisdiction will extend for some specific distance into unincorporated areas near his jurisdiction.

Even in those states that limit the officer’s jurisdiction to city limits, there are exceptions. An officer may always follow a suspect of crime while the officer is in hot pursuit of the suspect. For example, in a Virginia case, an officer witnessed a traffic violation, turned on his lights and slowly followed the suspect out of town. His conviction was upheld on appeal on the ground that the officer was in hot pursuit. By contrast, in an Arkansas case, an officer saw a car that was driving erratically, but the officer lost the car while trying to tail him. Several hours later, the officer saw what looked like the same car in a parking lot of an Elk’s Lodge just outside city limits. The officer detained the suspect and called for an officer with jurisdiction to make an arrest. The appellate court threw out the conviction on the ground that the officer who detained the suspect was acting outside his jurisdiction, and was not in hot pursuit of the car he had seen several hours earlier.

Another exception to geographical limits is where the officer already has a warrant. Generally, an officer can arrest a suspect pursuant to a warrant from his city or county anywhere within the state. A city officer can make an arrest outside his jurisdiction where the adjoining jurisdiction has called for help or specifically asked the officer to enter the jurisdiction. Some counties or cities have entered into preexisting agreements whereby any officer from one city may cross into the next to make an arrest.

But even if the officer acts outside his jurisdiction, and not pursuant to any of these exceptions, the arrest might still be lawful as a citizen’s arrest. As discussed in a past episode, any citizen is generally authorized to make a citizen’s arrest if he witnesses a felony. So, if the officer in the Arkansas case had witnessed a drug deal behind that Elk’s Lodge, his arrest would likely have been upheld as lawful because he witnessed a felony. By contrast, most traffic offenses are considered misdemeanors. So, if an officer in a state that followed strict geographical limitations witnessed a traffic violation just out of town, he would not be able to arrest as an officer, and he could not successfully argue that he was making a citizen’s arrest because he had only witnessed a misdemeanor.

But, as I have advised with any police encounter, it is almost always better to calmly cooperate with the officer. Belligerence and violence are just not good ideas when dealing with someone who carries a nightstick, mace and a gun. If the officer stops you, and you think he is acting outside his jurisdiction, it is better to cooperate and challenge the jurisdiction later.

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