In Personam Jurisdiction: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet

Kenneth has a JD, practiced law for over 10 years, and has taught criminal justice courses as a full-time instructor.

A court must have authority over a case before it renders a legally binding judgment. In this case, we will learn about in personam jurisdiction and what that means to a court's authority.

The Authority of A Court

Carly-Sue lives in Washington State and owns a carbon exchange business. She sells carbon credits to people who want to reduce their carbon footprint. She sends a portion to Bob who plants trees on his property in Oregon to reduce carbon. One day Carly-Sue learns Bob is taking the money but not planting trees. She goes to court in her state and files suit, but Bob refuses to come to court because he says Washington state doesn't have jurisdiction over him. Does that seem right?


Judicial jurisdiction, also known as original jurisdiction, is the full authority of a particular court to hear a case. For that authority, there are three types of jurisdiction the court must possess: territorial jurisdiction (over a geographical area), subject matter jurisdiction (the power of the court to hear the subject of the case) and in personam jurisdiction (also known as personal jurisdiction, and it means over a person).

So how are these types of jurisdiction determined? Both territorial jurisdiction and subject matter are almost exclusively granted jurisdiction by a statute. A state's legislature passes laws that confer the boundaries of the courts and establishes which subjects a particular court can hear.

For example, a person gets a ticket and the local traffic court can hear the case because a law gave that court jurisdiction over traffic violations within geographical boundaries. If the person is ticketed in a different town, then a different court would have jurisdiction based on territory.

By its nature, in personam jurisdiction is dynamic, and the state seeking jurisdiction, the forum state, can't merely pass a statute to confer jurisdiction on anyone it chooses but only those who fit certain criteria. For example, if Tina lives in Alabama, that state has jurisdiction over her based on her residency. However, if she moves to a different state, then that state has jurisdiction over her person. But does that mean Alabama will never have jurisdiction over her in any situation? What if she drove back to see family and ran over a hot dog cart? Then Alabama's law on personal jurisdiction could cover her based on her being physically in that state, but only for the activities related to damaging the cart. There are other scenarios and criteria that create personal jurisdiction for those who don't live in that state.

Criteria for In Personam Jurisdiction

General vs specific jurisdiction:

If a person is a resident of a state, then that state has general jurisdiction for any legal matter in any court in the state. Specific jurisdiction is limited to a particular circumstance which typically means the state may have jurisdiction over an out-of-state person for a specific circumstance. For example, if Tina lives in one state but her soon to be ex-husband files a suit for divorce in his state, then that state will have personal jurisdiction over her for the purposes of the divorce only.

Territoriality Test:

Not to be confused with territorial jurisdiction which is a court's authority based on geographical boundaries, the territoriality test looks at the physical geographical location a person is in and confers jurisdiction over that person.

In rem:

This is Latin for ''a thing'' or property. It means a state can have jurisdiction over a person's interest in personal property if that property is within its borders. It doesn't confer full jurisdiction over the person, just that person's legal interest in the property. If action is taken against the property, and the person doesn't want to appear in court, then the court can take control of the property.

Contacts test:

If a person has contacts with a forum state, then it can confer jurisdiction over the person based on those contacts. The contacts have to be substantial and related to the state itself and not just a person in the state. This jurisdiction is typically limited to those contacts. For example, if Tina is driving through a state and gets into an accident, then that state has jurisdiction over her concerning any criminal charges or civil actions in that state over that specific incident. But if the court wants to exercise jurisdiction over her for another criminal or civil case, then any personal jurisdiction will have to based on something other than the auto accident.

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