What is a Federal Subpoena?

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  • Written By: Alexis W.
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 09 February 2020
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A federal subpoena is a formal request for information or property issued by a federal court judge. A subpoena is a legal order that commands the person requested to either appear, turn over information, or surrender property to a law enforcement official. A subpoena is appropriate to compel a witness to testify in the event of a crime or to compel someone to turn over evidence or property.

The most common reason for a subpoena is when a witness to a crime, or to an incident giving rise to a legal cause of action, does not wish to testify. The person is referred to as a hostile witness because he may have the necessary information a plaintiff, prosecutor or defendant needs to prove his case, but he may be unwilling to turn over that information for some reason. As such, a subpoena can compel him to come to court to share what he knows or to turn over the evidence desired. Because the justice system depends on the court, judge and jury receiving as much information as possible to decide a case, the court has the right to issue the subpoena to compel testimony in the interest of justice.


A federal subpoena is issued by a judge within the federal court system. This system is a court of more limited jurisdiction than a state court system. The federal court can hear cases only when a federal issue or question is at stake or when diversity jurisdiction exists. Federal issues or questions mean that the parties are having a dispute in which federal law governs or that the issue is one arising from the Constitution. Diversity jurisdiction exists when two parties from different states or when a citizen and an alien are having a dispute over $10,000 US Dollars (USD) or more.

Therefore, a federal subpoena will only be issued by a federal judge in cases being heard in federal court. One or the other party — either the plaintiff, prosecutor or defendant — will make a request that the judge issue the subpoena to help him collect the evidence he needs to make his case. The judge will review the request for the federal subpoena and issue it or deny it. The federal subpoena will then be delivered to the person being subpoenaed and he will either have to comply with the request made in the subpoena or he will be held in contempt of federal court and possibly subject to jail time.


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Post 5

Whether the subject to Federal Subpoena is a witness or accused, is it possible to not find any records of it at US Attorney/ Federal Court records after it was issued and executed?

Does the law permit US Attorney to dispose of subpoena/ transcripts/proceedings records without documentation?

Post 4

All of the previously stated points are true, but keep in mind that federal subpoenas can be issued to witnesses and not just people being prosecuted. Thousands of federal subpoenas are issued every year and most of them are for witnesses. In federal cases there are sometimes dozens of witnesses subpoenaed and they are not necessarily in serious trouble, they are just part of the process.

Post 3

@matthewc23- That is true, but you have to keep in mind that your reasoning applies only to circumstances related to interstate commerce. Most of the time when someone or something is prosecuted in federal court it is considered a lot more serious than if it were in state court.

If an individual receives a federal subpoena it means that the individual has committed a federal crime, which is a whole lot more serious than a state crime. In order to determine the seriousness of a case being held in federal court one has to look simply at what the charge is, instead of just assuming it is being held in federal court due to jurisdiction, or that it is a serious charge.

Post 2

@jcraig- You are right jcraig. companies can be prosecuted in federal court if they engage in interstate commerce, something that is nearly impossible not to do if you are a major company with various locations across the nation. However, just because a company is being prosecuted in federal court does not mean they are in any more trouble than they would be being prosecuted in state court. Most of the time being prosecuted in federal court is simply a matter of jurisdiction and circumstance.

Post 1

Most of the time of late Federal subpoenas have been issued to major companies. This is due to the fact that major companies which have various locations across the nation cannot be prosecuted as a company in state court.

Specific locations are usually prosecuted in state courts if it is an isolated incident, but the company as a whole, if it is nationwide, can usually only be prosecuted in federal court due to their interstate commerce.

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