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.
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.