In the United States, there are many states which have laws prohibiting things which other states permit - gambling, marijuana, same-sex marriage, and gun ownership, for a few examples. Obviously, if you do one of these things in a state which prohibits it, you're subject to the local laws - you can't claim "I'm from somewhere where it's legal" and be excused. I'm wondering about the reverse: Can a state make it illegal for its residents to take certain actions in another state?

Originally, this was about whether it be legal for a state to have a law prohibiting or fining its residents from getting an out-of-state marriage license (possibly to avoid a waiting period or to get around same-sex marriage laws). However, the broader question is about inter-state activity altogether. For another example: Can you be arrested for going to another state and buying a gun which would be illegal for you to own in your home state, if you never bring said gun back home?

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    "illegal for its residents to take certain actions" - No, not until they take these actions in their own state. You can't bring medical marijuana from California to Texas, for example. Same thing for guns/marriages. But they can obtain medical marijuana while they're in California, just can't bring it back.
    – Shahar
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 14:48
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    @Shahar - I assumed that they don't, since I've never heard of it happening. It's more a question of can't and why not?. There's federal laws which apply to US citizens even overseas (such as child sex tourism), why not state laws which apply even out of state?
    – Bobson
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 15:01
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    No, but the federal government can.
    – user1873
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 15:30
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    @Bobson, jurisdiction. Technically, the federal law is charging you with transporting them within the US, for what you intend to do in another country. So, you are within their jurisdiction when you commit the thought crime. (Thought crime law isn't that controversial, just see hate crime legislation as another example)
    – user1873
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 15:34
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    Age of consent laws in the US seem to all be 16+, so that particular federal law many no longer be an issue.
    – user1873
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 15:41

3 Answers 3


The answer to your question, generally, is No.

In People v. Brown 69 Cal. App. 2d 602, a California appellate court stated clearly what had been understood implicitly from common law, namely that a U.S. State has criminal jurisdiction only over its own territory when the crime itself is committed within that jurisdiction, even if (for example) the crime is committed on federal land, so long as the state has not ceded that right explicitly. Since the territory of another state does not fall within the criminal jurisdiction of the first state, the first state could not prosecute crimes where the criminal act was committed in another state.

Jurisdiction can get fuzzy when parts of a crime are committed within different jurisdictions, but even then, as stated in United States v. Anderson - 328 U.S. 699 (1946): “[T]he locus delicti must be determined from the nature of the crime alleged and the location of the act or acts constituting it.”

For example, if Kansas makes purchasing and transporting marijuana illegal, and you were to drive from Kansas to Colorado to purchase marijuana, and then transport it back home to Kansas, Kansas could prosecute you for transporting a controlled substance, entering the state of Kansas with a controlled substance, or even conspiring (in Kansas) to enter Colorado for the purpose of acquiring marijuana, but not on the purchase there per-se.

So, regarding ownership, again the answer is No. An example of jurisdictional claims by a state is Texas Penal Code Chapter 1 Sec 1.04 "This state has jurisdiction over an offense that a person commits ... [when] either the conduct or a result that is an element of the offense occurs inside this state". So, a state can prosecute you for conspiring to leave your state to acquire something illegal, it can prosecute you for intending to use the possession to commit a crime inside your former state, or in the commission of a crime against your state. However, unless an act, in whole or part, is committed inside the borders, the state cannot prosecute you.

  • BTW, I didn't want to touch the guns example the questioner gave, due to unrelated legal questions, but I think my example, esp the part about Conspiracy laws, answers it indirectly. Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 18:07
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    +1 But you need to learn how to link to references. (Click Help, or enclose the text in [brackets], followed immediately by parentheses anf the (http URL). Some people answer in comments becuase their answer isn't complete, high enough quality, or just a link answer. Feel free to compile info from comments and make a good answer.
    – user1873
    Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 19:04
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    @LibertarianGrump - Nice answer. It definitely explains most of what I was wondering. The one aspect it doesn't address is that of an ongoing status crime (such as owning a weapon/drug/business/license in another state that would be illegal where you live), but that's just a minor aspect of it. I've upvoted, and if you add references like user1873 suggested, I'll hit accept too. Welcome to Politics.SE!
    – Bobson
    Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 19:16

While the state may not allow an activity, it is not forced to recognize it if it occurred in another state, i.e. same sex marriage. My home state, wonderful Indiana, does not recognize a same sex marriage if it occurred in another state, even if there is a valid marriage license issued from a state. Since Indiana doesn't recognize this marriage, you can't get in trouble for polygamy if you were already married (of course, in a legal same gender marriage). Ergo, Indiana does not criminalize the act which occurred in another state, it just pretends it never happened


There are examples where the federal government has explicitly made laws covering the "several states" - such as is used for interstate commerce (Article 1, Section 8, clause 3). The compact clause further defines boundaries between states' rights and Federal jurisdictions. As such, if something is illegal in the eyes of the federal government, then it would be illegal across states and state lines - but that is not the question being asked.

So to continue...

The prevailing view is that the states are independent - individual political units and as such, individual states would need to agree with each other for this to happen. The laws of a given state have jurisdiction only within that states boundaries. That's why criminals need to be extradited from one state to another. I think that's the closest you can get: Article four of the constitution establishes extradition between states.

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    I'm afraid that I'm having trouble following your logic. This question seems to be about whether a state can impose laws on their citizens when they are not in that state(and potentially arrest them when they come back to said state). I don't think that extradition laws answer that question. Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 16:11
  • Although your answer doesn't say it directly, it presupposes that yes, states are allowed to enforce laws on their own residents even during times where they are not physically present in their state. Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 16:13

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