Why a 20-year-old document led to dismissal of charges in the Sevier County fires

GATLINBURG (WATE) – Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn said a 20-year-old document is one of the reasons the state dropped charges against two juveniles charged with setting the Chimney Tops fires.

Since national parks are on federal land, the federal government typically signs an “agreement for concurrent jurisdiction” within the state, which gives the state jurisdiction over park lands. The state of Tennessee has an agreement with the National Park Service.

One agreement from the mid-90’s does not include references to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The second, from 2002, adds the park, but still has the old signatures.

District Attorney Dunn said it is unclear how both of the documents got into circulation, but it is clear that both have been used by various agencies in different contexts. Once he became aware of the competing documents, Dunn said he notified the State Attorney General’s Office as well as the U.S. Attorney’s Office to ask which document was controlling and whether or not the state could prosecute criminal acts that occur within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“After reviewing the documents, both the State Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office advised that it was their respective opinions that the State of Tennessee does not have jurisdiction to prosecute criminal acts that occur wholly within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” said Dunn. Therefore, any prosecution for criminal conduct occurring entirely within the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park must be initiated by the federal government”

Dunn dropped charges against the juveniles, but left open the possibility of federal prosecutors taking the case up.

Related: Charges dropped against juveniles in Gatlinburg wildfires

U.S. Attorney Nancy Stallard Harr issued a statement saying, “the U.S. Attorney’s Office is in communication with the District Attorney General’s office. A review of the evidence in this case will have to take place in order to determine whether it is appropriate to seek approval from the Attorney General to prosecute juvenile offenders in federal court.”

WATE 6 On Your Side reached out to Dunn to ask if the state’s lack of jurisdiction in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park could have an impact on other cases within the park.

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