Posted on 4/2/18

Determining the proper jurisdiction in which to try a criminal defendant can be complicated. In its simplest form, the jurisdiction where the crime took place is the generally the jurisdiction where the trial should take place. Suppose a man from Kansas is accused of killing a man from Arkansas and the crime allegedly happened in Texas; Texas would then be the proper jurisdiction for the trial. In addition, the laws would be subject to the Texas Penal Code and the defendant would have full use of defenses under Texas law.

This is not as clear when one of the parties is a Native American who lives on a reservation or when the alleged crime took place on a reservation.

Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas

The state of Texas granted land in Polk County to the Alabama tribe in 1840, though the Alabamas did not settle the land right away. It was later expanded to include a relative of the Alabamas, the Coushattas, and was settled in 1859. Since then, it has status as Indian Reservation land and is still in operation to this day. There are two other recognized Indian reservations in the state of Texas.

Those who have Alabama-Coushatta ancestry and choose to live on the reservation have certain privileges. The United States government granted these privileges in recognition of government atrocities committed against Native Americans. For instance, there are limited tax rules for those who live on reservations. Today, cigarette taxes are sky-high, so cigarettes purchased on reservations are not subject to tax, making purchasing them on reservations a big money saver.


Indian reservations also have a degree of autonomy. Managed by the US government-created Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, reservation autonomy gives them special status with respect to federal law. For instance, due to their autonomy, certain state laws do not apply, so state laws regarding gambling are not applicable to Indian reservations. Hence, many reservations opened casinos over the last several years.

Because the BIA, a federal agency, manages reservations, in many respects the reservations fall under Federal law. Sometimes, however, it falls under state law and sometimes it is up to the Indian tribal courts to enforce the law. Indian tribal courts are not subject to the same rules as state courts.


With respect to criminal law and Native Americans, court jurisdiction is complex. In general terms, here is the breakdown regarding jurisdiction of the court:

  • Non-Native American crime on non-Native American crime, the state of Texas has jurisdiction even of the crime occurs on the Alabama-Coushatta Reservation or other Indian Reservation.

  • If either the defendant or plaintiff is a Native American, but not both, then Federal law will be the controlling law. In such an instance, the Texas US Attorney’s office, not the local prosecutor, would handle the prosecution.

  • If both parties are Native Americans, the Indian Tribal Courts would have jurisdiction.

As mentioned, this is not entirely clear, so proper jurisdiction can be complex.

Accused of a crime? Contact the Texas criminal defense firm of Christopher Abel, an experienced criminal defense attorney.

(image courtesy of Joey Csunyo)

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