Police Jurisdiction: Definition & Laws

In this lesson, you will understand what police jurisdiction is and how it pertains to different law enforcement agencies. You will learn the difference between territorial and subject matter jurisdiction and how they relate to policing.

Police Jurisdiction

Many cities have clearly marked boundary lines that differentiate them from their neighbors. You will often see signs on the highway welcoming you to a city or into another state. Police jurisdiction, generally, is contained to the areas within the city limits where the police officer is sworn. A police officer who works for a particular city would only be authorized to enforce the law within the city limits. This is referred to as territorial jurisdiction. For example, a police officer who works for the City of Cleveland, Ohio is sworn to protect and serve within the city limits of Cleveland only. The city has no authority to grant jurisdiction outside of these limits. Therefore, a Cleveland police officer who would happen to be outside of the city limits would have no authority to make an arrest for many crimes and violations.

Another example of jurisdiction is subject matter jurisdiction. This form of jurisdiction allows an agency to only investigate and make arrests for specific violations of law. For example, the Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC) oversees all sales, permitting, purchasing, manufacture and consumption of alcohol in North Carolina. Their agents, or officers, are tasked with enforcing violations and ensuring compliance with the law. However, these officers are only vested with the authority to make arrests and conduct investigations for alcohol related violations. An officer working for the ABC would not have subject matter jurisdiction to investigate a fraud that took place at a convenient store that happened to sell alcohol. These officers are required to meet two criteria when enforcing alcohol violations. First, they have to meet subject matter jurisdiction requirements to ensure it is a violation of ABC law. Second, they have to meet territorial jurisdiction requirements to ensure that the violation falls under their area of assignment. What this means is that a North Carolina ABC officer could not investigate an alcohol violation in South Carolina.

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Laws and Exceptions

Cities enact ordinances which are local laws that permit or prohibit certain things. A police officers authority would be defined under a city ordinance and the officer’s jurisdictional authority would be derived from city ordinance as well. This allows a police officer to enforce laws and arrest violators within the territorial jurisdiction of the city. However, there are exceptions to this law under certain circumstances. These exceptions can extend an officer’s jurisdiction to areas outside of the city limits.

Officer Stevens is patrolling the west end of Main City near the city limit. Officer Stevens observes a vehicle driving erratically and nearly causing an accident. Officer Stevens turns her patrol car around to pursue the reckless driver and by the time she catches him, the vehicle has left Main City and is now in the city limits of Plain City. Under the law, since Officer Stevens observed the initial violation inside the city limits where she is sworn to serve as an officer, she can legally make a traffic stop outside of the city limits and make an arrest. In this example, the police officer’s authority is extended to allow the officer to pursue the violator out of the city limits and into another jurisdiction in order to stop and arrest the violator. Additionally, if the driver of the reckless vehicle has contraband in the car, this officer would still be authorized to arrest for this violation; even though the contraband was not discovered until outside of the city limits.

In addition to an on-sight pursuit of a violator out of the police officers jurisdiction, police officers have the authority to leave their territorial jurisdiction to make an arrest for other violations of law. If an officer has a valid arrest warrant, an officer is given the authority to take the wanted person into custody anywhere in the state the person may be found. A valid arrest warrant gives a police officer the authority to leave the territorial jurisdiction to make an arrest. The only restriction in serving an arrest warrant would be that the officer is not granted the authority to make the arrest in another state.

Lesson Summary

Police jurisdiction is generally contained to the city limits where an officer is sworn. This would be known as territorial jurisdiction and officers, in most circumstances, would not be permitted to patrol or arrest violators outside of their jurisdiction. Officers who are specialized in one discipline, such as Alcoholic Beverage Commission Officers, only have jurisdiction related to their particular subject matter. These officers are required to meet both territorial and subject matter jurisdiction rules before they can act in their official capacity.

There are some exceptions that would allow an officer to leave the territorial jurisdiction to affect an arrest. An on-sight violation, or criminal act committed within an officer’s territorial jurisdiction gives the officer the authority to pursue and arrest outside of the jurisdiction. Also, any further crimes discovered while taking enforcement for the original crime or violation can be prosecuted. Officers can also leave their territorial jurisdiction to serve valid arrest warrants. When a crime has been committed and a valid arrest warrant is obtained, an officer has the authority to leave his territorial jurisdiction and make an arrest in any other county within the same state.

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