What Are Witness Subpoenas and What to Do If You Receive One

Have you been serviced a witness subpoena to appear in court? You can’t ignore it and hope it goes away. Here’s what you need to know about witness subpoenas.

Keyword(s): witness subpoenas

America’s court system handles more than 100 million civil and criminal cases each year. From high-profile murder trials to family court proceedings, witnesses play a key role in every case. 

But how does being called to serve as a witness work? What are your rights as a potential witness? Here’s what you need to know about witness subpoenas and what to do if you receive one.

What Is a Witness Subpoena? 

A witness subpoena is a formal notice from the court system. It informs recipients that they have information relevant to a court case and that they must provide that information to the court.

Witnesses who receive court subpoenas may need to:

  • Appear in court at a certain date and time
  • Appear before the authorities or attorneys in a case to give a pre-trial deposition 
  • Provide documents or other evidence relevant to the case to the court
  • All of the above

Witness subpoenas work the same way regardless of the type of case (civil vs. criminal) or type of court (federal vs. state) involved. Subpoenas can come from either party in a court case. Both prosecutors and defendants have the right to call witnesses as needed.  

The Difference Between Subpoenas and Court Summons

Individuals unfamiliar with court proceedings may initially confuse subpoenas with a court summons but they are not the same thing. 

subpoena is a notice telling someone they have been called as a witness in a court case. Subpoena recipients are neither the defendant nor the plaintiff in the case in which they will testify. 

court summons is a notice telling someone that criminal or civil charges have been filed against them. It is notice that they have become the defendant in a case and must appear to answer the charges or face the consequences. 

Who Can Get Subpoenaed as a Witness? 

Almost anyone can be subpoenaed as a witness. Depending on the type of trial and the issues involved, attorneys may ask witnesses to testify about:

  • Events they participated in
  • Events they saw occur
  • Conversations they had with parties involved in the case
  • Documents or other evidence they provided to the court

Attorneys may first ask individuals to serve as witnesses in a case. If the witnesses agree, no subpoenas are necessary. If the witnesses do not agree, then the attorneys will subpoena them to force their cooperation. 

Once issued, subpoenas remain in effect until:

  • The case is closed  
  • The issuing defendant or prosecutor releases the witness from service in writing
  • The judge in the case releases the witness from service in writing

Witnesses must make themselves available for the duration of the case unless or until they receive a written release.

Can You Ignore Witness Subpoenas?

Witnesses play a key role in court operations. They provide critical information that judges and jurors use to determine the truth of a case and to make legal decisions about the outcome. Ideally, witnesses would always agree to participate voluntarily.

Subpoenas exist because witnesses with essential information do not always participate willingly. Subpoenas allow courts to legally force participation where necessary.  

As such, recipients cannot ignore witness subpoenas. They are legally binding and failure to respond to them may be met with legal consequences. For example, witnesses who ignore subpoenas may be charged with contempt of court. 

What to Do if You Receive a Subpoena

If you receive a witness subpoena, take a moment to review the information it contains. It should tell you:

  • The type of case in question 
  • Who the active parties in the case are
  • Who is calling on you to testify
  • Why they are calling on you to testify
  • What they want you to testify about
  • When you need to appear

If you have questions, contact the attorney who subpoenaed you for clarification.

If you cannot make the set date or time, contact the attorney who subpoenaed you and explain your situation. In most cases, they can provide you with an alternative time. If they will not work with you, you have the right to contact the judge for assistance. 

What if You Do Not Want to Participate?

There are many reasons why witnesses might not want to participate in a trial. Examples include:

  • The inconvenience and disruption to their schedule
  • Concerns about damaging their relationships with the people involved in the case 
  • Concerns about facing charges themselves as the result of their testimony
  • Concerns about their safety if they testify against someone 
  • Concerns about the ramifications of their testimony on their career, family, or other aspects of their lives

If you receive a summons you do not want to comply with, you will need to seek assistance from an attorney

Do You Need a Lawyer if You Are Subpoenaed?

Not all subpoenaed witnesses will need an attorney. In many cases, serving as a witness is a simple and straightforward affair.

It may involve as little as providing copies of documents or video you have to authorities or answering a few short questions about where you were, what you were doing, and when. When this is the case, witnesses often do not need legal assistance.

In other cases, however, the first thing a witness subpoena recipient should do is contact an attorney. 

You may want to seek out an attorney if:

  • The subpoena asks for documents or testimony you are not comfortable providing
  • You cannot participate at the set time and cannot get cooperation on changing the dates or requirements from the attorneys or judge
  • The subpoena was not served correctly 
  • Testifying in the case will open you up to potential charges
  • Testifying may negatively impact your safety or livelihood
  • You previously provided information to authorities that may be construed as inaccurate or misleading
  • Your job places limits on what you can say to whom and in what circumstances 

If any of these conditions apply, speak to a lawyer about your situation and your options before talking to or providing information to any other party. 

Your lawyer may be able to: 

  • Work out an alternate time for you to testify
  • Negotiate an agreement with the attorneys and authorities that protects you from facing charges as a result of your testimony
  • Negotiate conditions or protections that prevent you from facing repercussions from testifying against a threatening party
  • Get you out of testifying or alter what type of testimony you must give based on professional contractual limitations 
  • Assist you in exercising your Fifth Amendment rights not to incriminate yourself

It is important to seek the help of an attorney right away if you need one. The sooner they become involved, the better able they will be to protect you. 

Learn More

If you have been called to testify and have concerns about the impact of those witness subpoenas on your wellbeing, we can help. Schedule your free consultation today to learn more about how we can protect you during this stressful time. 

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