Crossing bridges, crossing jurisdiction

Published 12:00 pm Sunday, August 13, 2017

Dear Lawyer Mark:

I’ve got a question for you, though it’s probably too late to do anything.  I got a ticket for speeding in Chesapeake a couple of months ago, and pled guilty to it.  The cop that got me said that he clocked me speeding when I was on the bridge coming over from Huntington. I always heard that Ohio doesn’t own the Ohio River. My question is this: if Ohio doesn’t own the Ohio River, can an Ohio cop write me a ticket for speeding on a bridge over it?


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Dear Speeder:

You are correct in that Ohio does not own the Ohio River.  In 1784, the Commonwealth of Virginia gave to the United States all of its territory “to the northwest of the river Ohio.” Because it was worded this way, Virginia continued to own the land below the Ohio River, rather than the more common method of using the middle of the river or stream as a boundary.  Kentucky was later split from the remaining lands of Virginia, and received the land beneath the Ohio River.

There was disagreement over the boundaries of the states along the Ohio River for centuries, and in 1966, Ohio sued Kentucky to determine the true boundary. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and was finally decided in 1980 in a 6-3 split opinion by the court.  The opinion, written by Justice Blackmun, found that the boundary of the State of Ohio “is the low-water mark on the northerly side of the Ohio River as it existed in the year 1792.”

Why 1792 instead of 1784?  Normally, boundaries can change along with the changing borders of a stream.  However, because the grant in this case was so specific, the court said that it would remain the same boundary as when Kentucky was granted statehood by the United States: 1792.

Kentucky and Ohio later agreed to exercising concurrent jurisdiction on the river, which means they both can patrol the river and enforce maritime laws (such as boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs).  However, no such deal was made to concurrent jurisdiction over bridges.

A case similar to yours was dealt with by the courts in Cincinnati. In that case, the court dismissed a case against an individual who was cited by the Cincinnati police after he wrecked with another car halfway between the shorelines.  The court stated that Ohio does not have jurisdiction to enforce traffic offenses on bridges over the Ohio River unless the offense occurs inside the territorial boundary of Ohio. Therefore, under that interpretation of the law, you could have been cited rightfully only if you were violating the law once you crossed the low-water mark.

As long as you were in Ohio territory when you violated the law, the police can cite you, whether you are on the bridge or not.

Thought for the Week: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  Heraclitus

It’s The Law is written by attorney Mark K. McCown. If you have a question, please forward it to Mark K. McCown, 311 Park Avenue, Ironton, Ohio 45638, or e-mail it to him at The right to condense and/or edit all questions is reserved.