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Western District of Texas Preliminary Hearing Guide


When someone gets arrested for a federal crime in the Western District of Texas they often have questions and feel confused. The process in Federal Court is not like the process in State Court. The differences between the two systems often mean that people charged with crimes, and their families, receive misleading information. This guide attempts to help answer some of those questions. If you would like to see a video explanation of the difference between State and Federal courts you can find that here.

1. What is the Western District of Texas?

The Western District of Texas covers all of the counties from San Antonio, to Austin, to Uvalde, and Del Rio. The major courts are located in San Antonio, Austin, and Del Rio. Each District licenses attorneys separately. When you want to hire an attorney make sure that the attorney that you are interviewing is licensed to practice law in the Western District of Texas. If you are accused of committing a federal crime and the crime is alleged to have happened inside one of these counties, your case will be heard in the Western District of Texas, and it will be assigned to the city closest to where the crime occurred. It does not matter where the accused lives.

2. What should I do if I have been contacted by a Federal Agent?

If you have been contacted by a federal agent you need to contact an attorney immediately. Federal agents are trained interrogators. They are allowed to lie to you to trick you into confessing. They are not required to tape record your statement and they will be allowed to testify and write reports on what they recall you saying. It is not enough to just remain silent. It could be that you have information related to a crime, and the federal agent is attempting to interview you to determine if you are a witness or someone who should be accused. A good lawyer can guide you through these treacherous decisions and lead you to the best possible result. Another advantage to hiring a lawyer is that your lawyer can begin negotiating with the government to determine if your co-operation would be to your long-term benefit. Finally, if there is no way to avoid an arrest, an attorney can talk to the government to determine if they can reach an agreement regarding the accused’s release.

3. What happens after an arrest for a federal crime?

If you are arrested for federal charges in the San Antonio, Austin or Del Rio areas, or one of the counties named above, you will be brought to federal court in the Western District of Texas. The first hearing will be an initial appearance in front of a magistrate judge. During the initial appearance, you or your loved one will be informed of the charges being brought by the government. If the government moves for your detention (if they will not agree to your release) you will be returned to federal custody until your preliminary hearing and bond/detention hearing.

4. What is a Preliminary Hearing?

A preliminary hearing is your first chance to challenge the government’s evidence. The burden on the government during this hearing is very low (at trial it is beyond a reasonable doubt, here it is just probable cause). Usually, the government can overcome their burden and the accused will be held. Also, witnesses can testify as to hearsay (statements made by other people or statements they have read the reports of others), and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the government.

Preliminary hearings must be held within three days of arrest unless the accused has already been indicted (an indictment means that a Grand Jury has already determined that probable cause exists to charge the defendant with a crime). However, many attorneys agree to extend this time limit so they can have more time to prepare.

There are a number of benefits to holding a preliminary hearing. These benefits include:

  1. Finding out what the government’s case is about;
  2. Getting early discovery;
  3. Getting an idea of the evidence that might be against you;
  4. Cross-examining the witnesses;
  5. Getting sworn statements from the lead investigator; and
  6. Prevailing and earning immediate release.

5. What is a Detention Hearing or Bond Hearing?

A detention hearing occurs when someone is being held on a federal charge and they ask to be released while their case is still being decided. A couple of questions will determine whether you are disqualified from getting released on a bond. Illegal aliens or non-citizens are far less likely to get a bond than citizens who are accused of the same crime. Still, if you or your loved one is in this country with permission, they may qualify for a bond. Additionally, people who have outstanding warrants or pending state charges are less likely to get bonds. Otherwise, the judge will ask the following questions:

  1. What are the defendant’s ties to the community?
  2. What is the defendant’s criminal history?
  3. What is the charge against the defendant? Is there a presumption of dangerousness (sometimes people who are found with a certain quantity of drugs have a presumption of dangerousness)?
  4. Was there a victim involved?

The answers to these questions and others will help determine whether or not the judge will allow the defendant out on bond.

6. How can I Improve my Chances of Getting a Federal Bond?

One thing that a lawyer can do to improve their client’s chances of receiving a Federal bond, is to call witnesses during the hearing. The witnesses should be there to testify favorably (and truthfully) about the defendant’s character. The witnesses should also be prepared to answer questions about where the defendant would stay and whether the defendant has a safe, crime-free and drug-free environment in which to reside. Also, if you or your loved one has any pending state issues of a criminal nature, they may need to be resolved. However, before resolving those issues, it is important to speak to an attorney, because depending on the charge and the resolution your criminal history category may be affected.

7. Is it important to hire a lawyer before these initial hearings?

Yes. Hiring a lawyer immediately, once you know you are under investigation, or after a loved one has been arrested, is crucial. It sets the tone of the case. Once the decision is made to waive a preliminary hearing you can never get that opportunity back. You and your attorney need to agree on a strategy as soon as possible so that you can get the best possible defense and minimize the consequences to yourself or to your loved one. While you can always hire an attorney after these initial hearings, it is best to hire someone early, especially if you are concerned that you might be the target of an investigation.

Contact our San Antonio Law Firm for any assistance in dealing with the Western District Courts.