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What is a subpoena?

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Q:

What is a subpoena?

A:

A subpoena is an official document that requires the recipient of that document to appear in court or to produce some specific evidence to the court. The word subpoena is Latin and means "under penalty." A person who is subpoenaed by the court must comply with the directions listed in the document, or risk being subjected to fines or even jail time.

Subpoena Ad Testificandum

A subpoena ad testificandum is a document that requires the person to whom it is addressed to testify in court. This type of subpoena is usually issued to witnesses of an event or crime, and requires them to divulge everything they know about the said event or crime under oath. This type of subpoena is also issued in matters of divorce or family law in order to ensure that all relevant or material parties will be present in court for a hearing.

Subpoena Duces Tecum

A subpoena duces tecum requires the recipient to produce specific type of evidence to the court. This may be anything from paperwork and financial records to digital media or physical objects. This is a very broad type of subpoena and anything that is not a testimony is included under this document. Recent court cases have allowed additional items to be included under this type of subpoena, including DNA samples or even downloaded materials from a computer.

Who Can Issue a Subpoena?

Any attorney who is authorized to practice law in a specific court can issue a subpoena on behalf of the court to anyone. If the subpoena is for anyone holding an upper-level government position such as governor, the subpoena must first be approved and signed off on by an administrative judge before being issued. If a person is representing themselves in court, either as plaintiff or defendant, they have the right to issue subpoenas.

How Is a Subpoena Served?

A subpoena must be "served" to the person by traceable means. This assures the court that you have actually received the document, and are consequently aware of the requirements contained within the document. Subpoenas can also be served in the following manner:

  • Hand-delivered. This is the most common way and is usually conducted by a process server working for the court.
  • Certified mail with return receipt. The receipt from the post office signed by the individual is required for this to be valid.
  • Emailed to your last known email address. A return acknowledgement is required.
  • Read out loud to you. This is legally binding, but does not happen very often.

What to Do if You Are Served a Subpoena

If you have been served a subpoena, there are several steps that you should take:

  • You should review the subpoena to ascertain what it is about. Understanding who sent the subpoena and for what reason is very important.
  • You should determine what the subpoena is requesting. You need to determine if you are required to present a testimony or provide evidence.
  • You should look at the date to see when you must produce the evidence or testify. You cannot miss the deadline dates contained within the document for submitting evidence or miss the court date to testify.
  • You should contact an attorney.

It is very important that you do not ignore the subpoena. Ignoring the document or refusing to comply with its requests can make you be liable for contempt of court and you will be fined and may be required to serve jail time.

If you received a subpoena, then you should immediately contact an attorney and have them review the subpoena with you. If you feel that the information contained within the subpoena is inaccurate, places you in any danger, violates your Fifth Amendment rights or otherwise causes you harm, your attorney can take legal steps to try to deter the court from making you comply. While this is not guaranteed, your attorney will know how to handle this situation and can protect your rights.

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