What’s the difference between jurisdiction and venue? What determines where a case is heard?
By Joseph Broadbent
In a criminal case, “venue” refers to the county or district where a case will be decided. Jurisdiction is a related, but broader concept. It refers to the legal authority to hear a case. Venue, on the other hand, refers to the precise location where the case will be heard. So, for example, the state of California might have jurisdiction over a case, while a court within Los Angeles may be the venue for it.
Statutes, constitutional provisions, and court rules set the rules for venue. Many state constitutions guarantee a defendant the right to be tried by an impartial jury in the county where the crime occurred.
Some states consider venue a fact that the prosecution must prove in order to obtain a valid conviction. So, the prosecution might have to prove, for example, that the county courthouse where the proceedings are occurring is the proper place. Some states don’t require the prosecutor to prove venue unless the defendant presents some evidence that the venue is wrong.
Other states view venue as nothing more than a choice of the most appropriate location—a choice that doesn’t affect the validity of the proceedings.
How to Prove It
In states that require the prosecution to prove venue (those that consider it a “jurisdictional fact”), failing to prove venue may lead to case dismissal or an invalid conviction.
Proving that venue is proper typically means proving where the alleged crime occurred. Circumstantial evidence may be enough to prove where the acts in question happened, or direct testimony might establish that venue is proper. For instance, a sheriff’s deputy might testify that:
- he works in a particular county
- his patrol area is from point X to point Y in the county, and
- he observed the crime while on patrol, in between points X and Y.
That testimony would probably be enough to prove venue.
In federal court, the prosecution must prove venue merely by a preponderance of evidence. (“Venue” in a federal criminal case typically refers to the “district” of prosecution; see this U.S. Courts overview.) Some states use the same standard, but most use “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Under either standard, the prosecution can easily prove venue with one witness’s testimony that the crime occurred within the relevant city, county, or federal district.
Again, venue is usually the county or district where the crime occurred. But what if a crime takes place in more than one place? In a state case, if different parts of a crime occur in different counties, the following may go toward determining venue:
- the nature of the offense
- where the elements of the crime took place
- where the criminal act took effect.
Crossover. The government can usually try continuing crimes in any county where part of the crime occurred.Crimes that occur near or on a border can often be tried in either county.
Online crimes. Venue for an online crime may be appropriate either at the place from which the defendant sent the message in question or at the place the other party received it. For example, a defendant who uses email to hire someone to commit a crime could be tried in the venue where he sent the message or in the venue where the person to be hired received it.
Accomplices and accessories. Accomplices usually go to court in the county where the crime occurred. But accessories before the fact and accessories after the fact might be tried in the county where they provided aid or assistance. (See Accomplices, Accessories, Aiders, and Abettors.)
Despite the principles above, a defendant can ask a court to change venue. State laws and court rules explain how to seek a change of venue, and may also impose deadlines.