Who’s the boss, city cops, state cops, or the Feds?

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Dear Cecil: While sitting here at my boring desk job, I periodically contemplate the criminal life. Excitement. Danger. Easy money. But before I change careers, I need to know the answer to this question: there are state cops, county cops, city cops, suburb cops, and the almighty FBI. Who has got superiority over whom? Who has authority where? Can a city cop nail me for speeding in the suburbs? If state, county, and city cops nab me in the city, who gets first crack, since they’re all within their proper jurisdictions? Does a private gumshoe, security guard, or even a citizen have the power of arrest? F.L., Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Dear F.:

Cecil is always happy to help the Teeming Millions achieve personal fulfillment, so long as they give him a cut of the swag. I prefer small bills in an unmarked envelope.

As far as city, county, and state cops go, nobody has superiority from a legal standpoint. All derive their authority in equal measure from the state constitution, and no matter who arrests you or what the crime (assuming it’s not a federal crime, which we’ll discuss in a moment), the state’s attorney’s office (the title may vary in different states) will handle the prosecution. A city cop can pull you over for speeding anywhere in the state, and so can county or state cops.

Ordinarily, of course, cops from different jurisdictions coordinate their efforts–city cops handle everything that normally comes up within the bounds of their municipalities, county cops patrol unincorporated areas, and state cops cruise the highways. If you conclude a crime spree with a chase involving city, county, and state cops, the question of who actually gets to bring you in is mostly a matter of expedience: who laid hands on you first, who feels like filling out the paperwork, and so on. City cops or county cops may on occasion be instructed to defer to, say, state law enforcement officials who are conducting an investigation, but this is a matter of management, not law.

Things get more complicated if we bring in cops for other states, or the federal authorities. Although Illinois cops, for instance, can chase you all over the Land of Lincoln, they can’t pursue you into adjoining states. They have to radio ahead to alert the cops in the state you’re trying to escape into. Later Illinois officials will have to arrange to have you extradited back here for trial. Usually this is a formality, but there have been several well-publicized instances where one state refused to surrender a prisoner to another.

As far as the feds go, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution declares that document to be the supreme law of the land, so if you’re accused of a variety of federal and state offenses, Uncle Sam gets first dibs, strictly speaking. As a practical matter, though, all local and federal agencies subscribe to the notion of "comity of jurisdictions," meaning they try to cooperate. Normally you’ll be turned over to the authority that’s after you for the most serious offense.

Every citizen possesses the common-law power of arrest, which means that you have a legal right to detain someone if (a) you catch them red-handed in the act of committing (b) a genuine crime. Bear in mind that you can be sued for false arrest if you screw up. Private guards and the like have no more right to arrest than the ordinary schmoe, but they are permitted to carry guns and wear uniforms and badges. Having faced the wrong end of a six-shooter in my day (no joke), I must say they confer considerable powers of persuasion.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.