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What Is a Court Subpoena?

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  • Written By: Maggie Worth
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 07 December 2016
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A court subpoena is a summons that dictates an individual's appearance in court, usually in order to give testimony. It is issued by the court that presides over the case in which the individual is required to testify. Failure to obey such a summons can result in fines and, in some cases, jail time.

In most cases, a court subpoena is used to compel someone who does not want to appear in court to do so. Witnesses summoned by the prosecution may not want the defendant to be convicted or may be afraid of repercussions and so do not wish to provide testimony that could lead to a conviction. Witnesses summoned by the defense may believe the defendant to be guilty and not want to provide evidence that would appear to exonerate him or cast reasonable doubt on his guilt.

There are other reasons to issue a court subpoena, however. The witness may be prevented from testifying by law or by a confidentiality contract unless he is served with a formal summons requiring his testimony. Issuing a court subpoena for his appearance allows him to testify legally.

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Regardless of the reason for its issue, a court subpoena requires the summoned party to appear in court. Most jurisdictions require the subpoenaed individual to be personally served, meaning that the physical document must be presented to the individual by a third party who can later swear to having delivered the document to the correct person. Some jurisdictions will allow the subpoena to be served to the individual's attorney of record if one exists. In some locations, service must be rendered by an officer of the law or of the court, such as an attorney or police officer. Others allow for service by a licensed private investigator or a registered process server.

Once a subpoena has been served, the individual must appear in court or be held in contempt. Such a contempt charge can result in the issuance of a bench warrant, which allows law enforcement officers to find and arrest the individual and present him to the court. Failing to answer a summons can result in fines, assignment to community service, or jail time. In some cases, the individual's refusal to respond may constitute a more serious offense, such as interfering with an investigation, and may be punishable by increased fines or more jail time. Individuals are allowed to present evidence of an inability to respond, which includes hospitalization; some illnesses; and in some cases, incarceration.

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Discuss this Article

Mykol
Post 2

I have often wondered what kind of person would like a job serving subpoenas to people.

This is not something I would enjoy, and in some situations, think could be kind of scary. I am sure most of the time there are not any problems, but you never know how some people might react.

I wonder how someone gets this kind of job. I just have never heard anyone say they make a living by being a process server. Even so, this is a job that someone has to do.

I just think it would take the right kind of person to be able to pull it off. Do they have to go through any kind of training to do this?

LisaLou
Post 1

I was given a subpoena for court many years ago. There was a knock at the door, I was handed a document without any explanation, and the man left.

When I had a chance to look at it, it was a subpoena to appear in court. A neighbor was taking us to court because he was complaining that our dogs were disturbing him.

I was the one who received the subpoena, so I was the one who had to testify. This was the first time I had to do something like this, and I must say, I was very nervous.

I had to go through the whole process, but the way it turned out, the judge could

not give a ruling. The initial complaint was made before my husband and I were married. Technically, they were his dogs, and the subpoena was not given to him.

In one sense I was very relieved at the way it turned out, but still didn't like going through the whole thing.

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