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What is a Subpoena?

Feb 08

Recently, I met someone in town who reads my article (to Scott Wright’s surprise, there is at least one). The gentleman told me he had recently been served with a subpoena to testify in court and asked if it were really mandatory that he appear. My answer was simply, “Yes.”

If you receive a subpoena from a process server, it is important that you know what this paper is and what it means to you. A subpoena is an order issued by the court requiring you to appear in person at a certain place, date and time to testify as a witness about a particular case. In a criminal case, you can be subpoenaed only to testify in court. In a civil case, you may be subpoenaed for out-of-court testimony as well. In either kind of case, a subpoena may require you to provide documents.

Subpoenas may be delivered in person by a deputy sheriff or by any other person at least 18 years old who is not a party to the lawsuit and is not an employee of, or attorney for, any party to the case. Read the subpoena carefully. The subpoena will tell you: the names of the parties; the date, time and place you will need to appear; the name of the lawyer who issued the subpoena; and the location and type of court in which the lawsuit is taking place. If the subpoena requires you to bring certain documents or other objects, they should be described in the subpoena or in a separate paper given to you along with the subpoena.

You may object in writing to any subpoena, listing all the reasons you think it is unfair or unjust for you to appear or to produce such documents or objects. Objections should be filed with the court immediately, not on the date you are required to appear or provide the documents. You may want to consult with a lawyer to make sure that your objections are filed correctly and on time.

If you do not appear as the subpoena orders, you may be found in contempt of court. Contempt of court may result in a fine or even a jail term. The court may also require you to pay compensation fees to the parties who may have been damaged by your failure to appear. The court may also issue a warrant for your arrest and ask the sheriff to take you into custody and bring you to the place at which your testimony is required.

If it is impossible or extremely difficult for you to appear at the time required by the subpoena, call the lawyer for the party who issued the subpoena. Usually, the lawyer’s name, address and phone number will appear on the subpoena. He or she might be able to postpone your testimony so you could testify at another time. You should keep in mind, however, that the lawyer may not be able to change the date and time of your requested appearance if a court date is already established and cannot be moved. If it is absolutely impossible for you to appear, or if it would be seriously harmful to your health or business, you should seek the advice of your own lawyer to decide if there may be legal grounds for you to be excused.