Where am I? Jurisdictional Borders in Washington, DC, Virginia, and Maryland

By Cory Bilton

Memorial Bridge 1

If you are the type of person that thinks “jurisdiction” only matters to lawyers and fugitives on the lam, you might be surprised to learn that the moment you cross a jurisdictional line you are subject to a completely different set of laws.  As you are walking across the Key Bridge from Rosslyn to Georgetown, for example, it is “Goodbye, Virginia law.  Hello, DC law.”  This has important consequences because Virginia law and DC law differ in many ways.  By crossing over that bridge you subject yourself to those new laws just by being present in the District of Columbia.

So, jurisdiction matters to everyone in the area.  But where exactly does Virginia end and Washington, DC begin?  The Potomac River, right?  What about the line between DC and Maryland?  It’s those diagonal streets (Southern Avenue, Eastern Avenue, and Western Avenue), right?  Both these answers are close, but not quite right.  The jurisdictional lines between Virginia, Washington, DC, and Maryland are very specific and do not necessarily match up with common understanding.  Here is what you need to know about jurisdiction in the DC area.

Border Between Virginia and Maryland

Virginia and Maryland have disputed the location of their border for hundreds of years.  Generally speaking, the border between the two states is the Potomac River.  The river itself, however, belongs to Maryland.  To discover the reason for this, you have to look all the way back to the day when the land was granted to Cecilius Calvert, dubbed “Lord Baltimore,” by Charles I, King of England in 1632.  From then until the Revolution there were conflicting claims between Lord Baltimore and Lord Fairfax.  But in 1776, Virginia ceded its claims to the Potomac River itself, except for use in navigation.  Like the river itself, there are many twists and turns as the story proceeds from 1776 to 2015, but the end result is that the Potomac River is in Maryland.  (For interesting details of the story, check out the decision in Potomac Shores, Inc. v. River Riders, Inc., Maryland Court of Special Appeals, August 29, 2014.)  Virginia ends where the water begins.  Maryland also controls the islands in the middle of the river between it and Virginia.

So if you are crossing from Virginia to Maryland, you enter Maryland the moment you are over the waters of the Potomac.  For example, if you are on the Beltway heading over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge from Alexandria towards Oxon Hill, you enter Maryland as soon as you leave the mainland on the Virginia side at Jones Point.  If you get into a car crash on the bridge, Maryland law will apply.

Border between Virginia and Washington, DC

The border between Virginia and Washington, DC is the Potomac river, too.  Since the District of Columbia is made up of land ceded to it by Maryland, DC controls the river and islands between itself and Virginia.  If you want to get hyper-technical, DC controls the river up to the “low water mark” on the Virginia side.  This means that Virginia controls the dry ground and the land covered by water that would be exposed when the river is low.

Since DC covers both the waters of the Potomac and the islands, there are a few spots where you might mistakenly believe you are in Virginia.  Roosevelt Island, for example, is in Washington DC, even though it’s only accessible through Virginia.  So when you are bicycling over the bridge from DC, you don’t enter Virginia until you are headed down the hill toward the boardwalk area connecting you with the Mount Vernon Trail.  Even more confusing is the Arlington Memorial Bridge.  Even after you cross over the bridge and you’re doing doughnuts on Memorial Circle, you are still in DC.  The whole area around Memorial Circle is actually an island controlled by the District of Columbia.  So if you happen to be hit by a car at one of those dangerous crosswalks near Memorial Circle, DC law applies.

Border between Maryland and DC

The border between DC and Maryland doesn’t have a river to mark it.  Instead, the border between DC and Maryland is marked by boundary stones laid down in the 1790s, initially creating a perfect square 10 miles per side.  The square starts at Jones Point, near Alexandria, VA, and proceeds with two 10 mile long imaginary lines, each 45 degrees from north, with two more lines that connect to the endpoints at right angles to the first two.  If you look at a modern map, it’s clear that the Virginia portion of this square (what is modern day Arlington and Alexandria) is no longer part of DC.  But the remaining sides of this imaginary square still represent the border between DC and Maryland.

Roughly speaking, these borders are represented by Western Avenue, Eastern Avenue, and Southern Avenue.  But if you look at where the boundary stones are located, you’ll notice that those named streets, and their sidewalks, are all located in DC.  In fact, the DC border cuts right through front yards, sidewalks, and shopping areas to the north of Western Avenue and Eastern Avenue, and to the south of Southern Avenue.  For example, near the Friendship Heights Metro station, the north Metro exit is in Maryland, but the south Metro exit elevator is in DC.  So an accident at one end of the Metro platform is going to apply Maryland law, while the other end of the platform applies DC law.

How Much Do the Differences Between the Jurisdictions Matter?

As with many legal answers, it depends.  There are many similarities in the laws of DC, Virginia, and Maryland.  For example, all three jurisdictions adhere to the doctrine of contributory negligence.  But there are many differences in the law between them, too.  For example, in Virginia there is a 2 year statute of limitations on torts, whereas DC and Maryland have a 3 year statute of limitations.  In addition to the differences in the black letter law of the three jurisdictions, there are also subtle differences in the procedures, courts, and lawyers in each area that can impact the outcome of a personal injury case.  For example, the pool of potential jurors is different in Montgomery County and Washington, DC.  These differences can impact a case in many ways.  A jurisdictional difference critical to one case, may not have much of an effect in another.

When you are injured by someone else’s negligence, the law of the jurisdiction where the incident occurred will be applied.  If you find yourself involved in a vehicle collision or bicycle crash near the borders between DC, Virginia, or Maryland, it is important to determine the precise location where the accident happened.  Sometimes even a difference of a few feet can have a significant impact on the outcome of a case.

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