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What is a subpoena? And what should you do upon receiving one?

What’s a subpoena?

Are you being subpoenaed?

What is a subpoena? And what should you do upon receiving one?

By Nisha Shankar on June 26, 2018


If getting a court document in the mail isn’t a cause for concern, then what is? A subpoena might not mean what you think, however.

Let’s say you’ve been subpoenaed. The letter might be asking you to produce some documents, or to testify under oath for a case – including one that might not mean anything to you personally. Either way, if you’ve received a notice from court requesting something of you, it’s natural to be unsure of what to do. What’s the best course of action? What happens if you decide to ignore the subpoena? Can it be fought? Finding the answers to these inquiries begins with understanding the question at the heart of the matter: What’s a subpoena?


So, what is a subpoena, exactly?

Subpoena, pronounced “suh-pee-nuh”, is a latin phrase meaning “under penalty”. At their core, subpoenas are fundamental legal orders that compel a person or entity to provide evidence for courtroom proceedings. The evidence itself can be in the form of documentation, or the subpoena could be used to request a person’s appearance in court for the purpose of providing testimony.

Let’s use a simple example to illustrate the concept of how a subpoena works:

Person A and Person B are involved in a legal dispute against one another. For their case, Person A needs XYZ documents from Person B – however, Person B does not have them. Instead, Person C, who is not involved in the case, has the documents. In order to obtain the evidence they need, Person A can approach a lawyer, who would then issue a subpoena to Person C, asking them to produce the documents. Since it’s a subpoena, Person C cannot ignore it.

Now that we’ve looked into the concept as a whole, it’s time to explore the types of subpoenas you might encounter. Primarily, there are two forms of subpoena to consider:

  • Subpoena ad testificandum – This subpoena variation requires that the recipient appear and testify in court on the provided date.
  • Subpoena duces tecum – Also known as a “subpoena for the production of evidence”, this type requires that its recipient produce documents needed for evidence. Among other forms, these documents could be books, records, bank statements, DNA samples, and emails.

In most cases, subpoenas are issued by an attorney on behalf of the court. On the other hand, if a case is centered around a high ranking government official, like a governor or agency head, issuing a subpoena could be reserved for those with the necessary credentials. In cases like this, the subpoena would need to be signed by an administrative law judge. An example of this: You might have heard how special counsel Robert Mueller issued a subpoena against the Trump Organization, for the purpose of obtaining documents about Russia.


Understanding the difference between a summons and a subpoena

Court summonses and subpoenas are two different elements. Although they are similar in that they are both notices for court proceedings, the content within them is what differentiates them from each other.

A summons is an official notice of an impending lawsuit that is issued to a person being sued, typically by the plaintiff. This notice is used to let a defendant know that a case has been registered against them, and that they will need to provide a response. Put simply, receiving a summons means you’re being sued by someone, which could be either a collective entity or an individual.

Unlike with subpoenas, which compel the recipient to either provide documents or appear in court, a defendant can choose to ignore a summons. Doing this will mean a default judgement can be made against you, however, so proceed with caution.

Subpoenas also differ from summonses in that they aren’t necessarily issued to the party being sued. On the other hand, they tend to come with stricter requirements for responding. To further illustrate this, Nate, a legal Expert on JustAnswer, states that: “Ignoring a subpoena can get one held in contempt of court.”

Whether your subpoena has demanded you produce evidence, or to appear in court in some fashion, ignoring it is usually not an option worth pursuing.


What to do after receiving a subpoena

For many of us, receiving a notice from court is a reason to feel some concern. Unfortunately, worrying tends to increase the likelihood of making mistakes. Understanding the correct steps to take can help you avoid these errors, giving you the peace of mind you need before moving forward. Keep in mind that the specifics of these steps may change depending on the state in which you reside, as local laws can have an impact on subpoena procedures.

 Following here is a list of guidelines for after you’ve received a subpoena:

  1. First and foremost, never ever ignore a subpoena. Ignoring these notices can constitute contempt of court, and you may be subjected to penalty or imprisonment.
  2. Take your time and go through the subpoena thoroughly. Ensure that you understand what is being asked of you.
  3. Don’t reply to subpoena without consulting with your lawyer or a legal expert. If you don’t wish to comply, make sure you file a written objection within 14 days of the subpoena being served.
  4. Prepare yourself for the hearing date by collecting all relevant notes and facts beforehand.
  5. While testifying in court, don’t lie. Lying in court is considered an act of perjury.
  6. If you receive a “subpoena for the production of document for evidence” and you have concerns, discuss them with a lawyer before doing anything drastic. Destroying anything that could potentially be considered evidence is a crime.

Remember, receiving a subpoena does not mean you’re being sued. It’s simply a notice from court asking you to either appear to testify, or to supply the documents needed for a case to proceed. When in doubt about what to do once subpoenaed, it is much better to seek out some guidance instead of just hoping for the best.

To get more information on what’s a subpoena, or to seek advice on how to deal with one, ask the Experts on JustAnswer.

Have you ever been subpoenaed? Do you have any advice to offer from your experiences? Share in the comments below!