Yellowstone National Park, located predominantly in Wyoming with some territory in Montana and Idaho, is a vast national resource. Most people come for the wildlife, the camping, or the views—but like any sprawling territory, it can also invite a degree of criminal mischief, from intoxication all the way up to the potential for homicide. There's even a 50-square-mile zone of the park that could conceivably host the perfect murder owing to byzantine jurisdictional laws.
Anyone less than a criminal mastermind, however, is likely to be confronted by Yellowstone’s law enforcement team, which includes an Investigative Services Branch and an exclusive Yellowstone Justice Center, which has all the tools needed to process wayward park attendees.
“I think most people are surprised to know we have a judge and courtroom and jail within proximity,” Aimee Hanna, manager of the Justice Branch at Yellowstone, tells Mental Floss. “My experience is most folks are just surprised to even know national parks have law enforcement rangers.”
In other words: If you commit a crime inside Yellowstone’s borders, you’ll find yourself arrested by a Yellowstone ranger, sitting in a Yellowstone jail cell, and pleading your case to a Yellowstone judge.
Once a U.S. Army guard house, the jail is located roughly a quarter-mile from the Yellowstone Justice Center in the northern end of the park in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming. Built in 2008, the Justice Center structure is what Hanna calls the “logistical” arm of the park’s federal law enforcement division. It’s the ultimate destination for anyone who commits an infraction. The jail holds offenders; the Justice Center processes them. (Yosemite National Park in California is the only other national park with both jail and court facilities.)
“Anything you can think of for someone being arrested in a city happens in Yellowstone,” Hanna says. “But it’s mostly alcohol, drugs, DUIs. People are intoxicated and get into fights.”
One example is Kyle Campbell of Fairmont, Indiana, who was sentenced in July 2021 to 60 days in jail, a five-year park ban, and $1550 in fines after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct while in Yellowstone. An intoxicated Campbell grew irate when a park guide refused his group a kayak tour. He resisted arrest by kicking and punching park officials.
For disturbances or emergencies in the same vein, the park has its own 911 dispatch center to field calls. Once arrested, park perps are transported to the jail facility, which consists of four cells and can typically hold up to eight people at once. (Hanna says that, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s now reduced capacity of one person to a cell.)
The cells are unremarkable save for the fact they’re inside the park. The “guests” are typically held for up to 48 hours until they’re able to be seen by the park’s magistrate judge, Mark Carman, a position created for the park back in 1894—a time when a case might have involved a stagecoach robbery. If the alleged offenders are arrested late on a Friday, that could mean a longer wait.
“You can have initial court appearances Monday through Friday,” Hanna says. “If you’re arrested Monday evening, you can have your appearance the next morning. Depending on how it goes, you could be released or remanded into custody. From there you’d be transported to another holding facility. There’s no court on weekends, so you might have to stay there until Monday.”
The courtroom resembles what you’d see in other jurisdictions, with a judge presiding over defense and prosecution tables. Defendants are entitled to a public defender or a private lawyer, while the federal government is represented by the Assistant United States Attorney specializing in parks and national forest service lands. Everyone walking into the building keeps an eye out for wandering elk.
Carman has seen just about everything before his bench, from frequent DUIs to domestic abuse cases and poachers. A father and son visiting the park tried stuffing a bison calf into their car because they thought they were helping to keep the calf warm. The father was made to pay a fine and donate $500 to the park's foundation, but the calf had to be euthanized after rangers' unsuccessful attempts to reunite it with its mother. Carman also once sentenced an 11-year-old boy to write an essay about why it's wrong to take petrified wood.
Virtually all arrestees in the park that eventually see the judge are accused of misdemeanors. If a crime is serious enough to warrant a jury trial, it will be routed to a district capable of creating one; protracted sentences are served in other detention facilities. But Carman’s rulings can still be harsh even without jail time. One man who pled guilty to fighting with his girlfriend got a lifetime ban from the park.
Hanna says that Yellowstone averages about 180 arrests a year, though the pandemic has caused a change in the type of charge. “We’re noticing more resource violations, trespassing violations,” she says. “Yellowstone has a lot of geologic features and thermal areas that are all closed to humans entering. There’s been an uptick of folks going off boardwalks and entering fragile thermal areas. It’s incredibly unsafe.”
Flirting with geysers and hot pots is dangerous business: The ground is thin and the water under it hot enough to scald skin (or worse—in 2016, a visitor fell into a thermal pool, and the boiling, acidic water dissolved his remains). There were a record 122 thermal trespass cases crossing Carman’s desk in 2020, up from an average of 40 annually.
Maybe it’s the guests' feeling oneness with nature, but Hanna believes some defendants are open to receiving advice that might otherwise go unheeded. “A ranger pulled over a motorcycle that was going at an egregious speed,” she says. “There was a mandatory court appearance, and the person showed up for the court date. He said the ranger had spoken to him and given him information about seeing people hurt and going at excessive speeds. He shared with the court that the conversation changed the trajectory of his habits. He sold his motorcycle. He saw the impact of his actions.”
That said, anyone detained is probably not going to wind up enjoying their experience at Yellowstone. Despite the scenic surroundings, neither the jail nor the Justice Center is intended to be part of the tour. “There’s not much of a view,” Hanna says.