Where will a federal crime be prosecuted?

venue in federal criminal cases

Venue in Federal Criminal Cases

Federal offenses are prosecuted in 94 federal districts across the United States. Each federal district may have multiple divisions. Each division may have multiple federal courts. Determining where a case will be prosecuted is a question of where “venue” is proper. 

To understand how federal courts are spread out, let’s use Texas as an example. Texas has four federal districts: Western, Eastern, Northern, Southern. The Northern District of Texas has the Lubbock division, the Fort Worth division, the Dallas division, and the Amarillo division. Each division, in turn, may have a number of district courts. For example, the Dallas division has multiple district courts. The Fort Worth division has two district courts. Both Lubbock and Amarillo have one district court each. The Northern district encompasses multiple counties stretching from Amarillo to Fort Worth to Dallas. The judges in Northern District are Magistrate Jeffrey Cureton, Judge Reed O’Connor, Judge John McBryde, and Judge Terry Means. The Lubbock and Amarillo judges are Judge Sam Cummings and Judge Mary Lou Robinson. The Dallas judges are Judge Barbara Lynn, Judge Sidney Fitzwater, Judge Sam Lindsay, Judge David Godbey, Judge Ed Kinkeade, and Senior Judge A Joe Fish.

Understanding Venue

Venue in federal criminal cases refers to where a case will be heard. In most cases, federal prosecutors have a variety of locations they can choose from where venue would be proper. Determining where venue is proper, depends on the nature of the offense charged.

If an offense is based upon one discrete, one-time event, such as a bank robbery then the case must be prosecuted within the locale where that event occurred.

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If an offense stems from a long period of activity under a wire fraud conspiracy, a securities fraud conspiracy, or a drug conspiracy, then acts could occur among long geographic stretches.

For example, if someone is accused of running a Ponzi scheme, facts may allege that investors were duped in different states. Anywhere an internet communication or phone call within that scheme can confer jurisdiction. In other words, say the scheme was based in Chicago but one investor received misrepresentation online while that investor was in Des Moines, that case could be prosecuted in either of those jurisdictions.

Also, imagine that a drug trafficking organization (a ‘DTO’ in federal parlance) ran drugs through Brownsville, Houston, Waco, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, all the way to Chicago. Any court in any of those territories could handle the case. So imagine three kilos of meth are transported through Brownsville and one of those kilos was given to distributors in Houston, a second kilo is sent to Fort Worth, a half kilo sent to Waco and a half kilo ends up in Oklahoma City.

This means that federal agents in any place where venue lies may present facts to a federal prosecutor in that area to try to convince the prosecutor to initiate a case. For example, agents in Oklahoma City may take their case to a prosecutor in the Western District of Oklahoma requesting that a drug conspiracy be prosecuted there. The events in Brownsville, Waco, Houston, and Fort Worth could be part of an Oklahoma indictment as ‘overt acts’ within the Western District of Oklahoma case.

How are Federal Criminal Cases Initiated?

Cases are initiated in three different ways.

Federal Indictments

Federal prosecutors could present a case to a federal grand jury for indictment. That indictment would trigger an arrest and arraignment in federal court. Once arrested an Initial Appearance is required under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. At the Initial Appearance hearing, a district or magistrate court will determine whether the accused is the same person that is indicated to have broken the law (under an indictment or criminal complaint) and whether detention is necessary. The detention hearing may be the same day or on a later date. Detention simply asks if there are a set of conditions that can secure the conspirator’s appearance in court. Such conditions can include a GPS tracking device, submission of urinalysis specimens, and reporting to a local probation officer.

Federal Complaints

As opposed to presenting the case to a grand jury, federal prosecutors could present a criminal complaint to a magistrate or district judge. If the Court signs the complaint then an arrest warrant issues. Once arrested, the conspirator will have an initial appearance like above. If a complaint is the triggering mechanism instead of an indictment, then the attorney for the accused can also challenge whether probable cause exists for the case. If a complaint issues, then that case must be indicted within 30 days or the case is thrown out.

Federal Target Letters

Prosecutors in that district could send a letter informing the accused that he or she is the target of a federal investigation. The letter will tell the target that he or she can be appointed an attorney and conferring with prosecutors.

Each of these triggering mechanisms is considered a critical stage of prosecution upon which the accused is entitled to counsel. If you are the subject of a federal indictment or complaint or receive a federal target letter, contact us at (817) 203-2220. 


Benson Varghese

Managing Partner at Varghese Summersett PLLC
Benson Varghese is the founder and Managing Partner of Varghese Summersett PLLC. He is a prolific writer and has authored hundreds of articles about criminal law in Texas and at the Federal level. His articles have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Above the Law, and have been selected as Top Blogs by the State Bar of Texas. He was named the Young Lawyer of the Year in 2019 by the Tarrant County Bar Association. Benson led the firm to become one of the 500 fastest growing businesses in the United States by Inc 500 Magazine in 2018. In the same year, the firm was named the Best Law Firm in Fort Worth by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The lawyers at Varghese Summersett PLLC exclusively handle criminal defense matters.
Benson Varghese