What Does Jurisdiction Mean?

I’m sure many of you have watched some sort of crime television show, considering how many there are. Law and Order, CSI, Blue Bloods, NCIS…the list goes on. And, of course, you’ve probably made note of some of the legal jargon they throw around in many of those shows. Words like, “incarceration” or “acquittal” or even my personal favorite, “exonerated.” Another important one is “jurisdiction,” and it’s important, not only because of how cool it sounds, but because of what it actually means to the modern day legal system.

Jurisdiction, at its base, actually has two rather significant meanings, both impacted by one key principle. One pertains directly to the authority for someone to hear a case and administer justice based on the findings of that case. Depending on the nature of the law or the crime that was committed, some cases might place jurisdiction in a state court while other cases would grant jurisdiction to a Federal court – based solely on the crime that was committed. However, jurisdiction can also refer to the geographical area in which a crime took place (also known as geographical or territorial jurisdiction), which can also be a determining factor in who might hear the relevant case. For example, it’s easy to assume that committing a crime in New York would not necessarily get you a court date or a trial in California. As much as it may have to do with logic applied to the situation, it is also due to who is granted jurisdiction in that particular situation. Both of these are due to the limits of legal authority granted to specific entities – their jurisdiction.

Jurisdiction is also predicated on the nature of the crime or transgression as it applies to what sort of relevant entity may hear the case and pass adequate sentence. For example, family and divorce courts obviously deal prominently in matters regarding custody or divorce proceedings, among other matters. However, you would never hear of a judge in a family court presiding over a criminal case that involved something along the lines of a homicide or sexual assault. This is due to jurisdiction being restricted from a family court setting and only feasible in a criminal court setting due to the sort of crime that was committed – also known as subject matter jurisdiction.

There are some unique cases involving a concept called “in personam” jurisdiction where, depending upon the circumstances of the case, courts can impose upon specific individuals to be sued or tried in settings and situations where said court wouldn’t normally have (most often territorial/geographical) jurisdiction. This most often occurs when a crime or a grievance takes place in one particular area of jurisdiction even though the defendant may be from or located in a completely different area with a completely different jurisdiction at the time that they are summoned to court. “In personam” or personal jurisdiction is a bit trickier to identify and requires many other factors to take place in order to determine if this sort of jurisdiction is applicable. However, having all three of these pieces (territorial, subject matter and personal) jurisdiction is important to determining a court’s right and ability to preside over a case. If even any one of these elements is missing, a court is legally unable to pass down a ruling upon a defendant.

Determining jurisdiction for police is much easier, depending on the sort of agency that an office of the law represents. Officers of a city police force have jurisdiction only within city limits. County sheriff’s deputies can enact authority anywhere throughout the county of their jurisdiction, excluding any activities that occur within city limits – they defer to local police officers. State troopers have authority to act anywhere throughout the state, though their ability to act with authority is limited within city limits or counties where jurisdiction would defer to other entities first.