A subpoena is a legal document issued by, or on behalf or, a court which orders the recipient to appear before the court and/or produce documents believed to be in the possession of the recipient. Complying with a subpoena, or subpoena compliance, is legally required absent a legal reason not to comply. Ignoring a subpoena can result in hefty fines or even incarceration for contempt of court. A recipient may, however, be able to avoid subpoena compliance by filing a motion to quash if he or she believes there is a legal reason not to comply with the subpoena.
Although a subpoena is a legal document with the legal force of a court behind it, in many jurisdictions, an attorney has the authority to issue a subpoena as an officer of the court. As a result, although attorneys are bound to uphold and abide by the laws in the jurisdiction where the subpoena was issued, there may still be a legal reason why the recipient may avoid subpoena compliance. Common reasons include: lack of jurisdiction; issues of confidentiality; improper service of the subpoena; or destruction, loss, or not having possession of the requested records.
In some cases, a court may not have jurisdiction over the recipient of the subpoena. In legal terms, this is known as lack of personal jurisdiction. Often, if the recipient of the subpoena is in another state, subpoena compliance may not be required because the court does not have jurisdiction. A subpoena must also be served on the recipient by an approved service of process method. Improper service of process may be another reason why a recipient is not legally required to comply with the subpoena.
Even when a subpoena is served properly and the court has jurisdiction over the recipient, there may still be legal reasons why compliance is not required. If the records requested are protected under a patient-client, clergy-parishioner, or attorney-client privilege, subpoena compliance be not be necessary. In addition, if the records requested have been lost or stolen, or are voluminous to the point of being burdensome, then the recipient may be excused from compliance.
If a recipient of a subpoena feels that he or she has a valid reason to not comply with the subpoena, a motion to quash should be filed with the court outlining the reasons. Ignoring a subpoena or failing to comply without prior court approval can have serious consequences. A subpoena recipient who ignores a subpoena may incur fines, legal expenses, and could even be charged with contempt of court and jailed.