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What is a subpoena?

A subpoena requires you to provide testimony or evidence in a court case.

A subpoena is a legal document that requires you to give information or testimony in court. One type of subpoena requires you to appear in court to testify and the other requires you to provide records to the court, such as documents, audiovisual recordings, or other physical evidence. Subpoenas are commonly issued for civil matters, like personal injury cases or divorces, although they are also used in criminal cases.

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Uses of a subpoena

Both sides of a case need to gather evidence to build their case. The legal system allows either side to require you to provide information if it is believed that you have knowledge of the case or records in your possession that could help them.

For example, if you witnessed a car crash, and someone injured in the crash files a lawsuit, you might be subpoenaed to tell the court what you saw. Or, if you employ someone who is getting divorced, a court might ask you to provide proof of employment and salary paid.

Issuing a subpoena

In general, your lawyer will handle the subpoenas for your case and ensure that everyone is properly contacted. When representing yourself, you can get a blank subpoena document signed by the court clerk or judge, and then fill it in with the required details.

Note that some states, such as Florida, require you to give notice prior to issuing a subpoena, so the subpoenaed party has time to file an objection, if applicable.

Service of process

You or your lawyer must arrange to have the subpoena “served” or delivered to the recipient. Typically, subpoenas are delivered in person or by registered mail. In limited circumstances and in certain courts, you may be able to deliver a subpoena by e-mail.

Many people choose to hire a process server to deliver a subpoena, since someone who directly connected to the case, like a plaintiff or their lawyer, cannot serve subpoenas. Subpoenas are not enforceable if they are not properly delivered. Process servers can also help you find hard-to-locate individuals.

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Reading a subpoena

Some documents might look like a subpoena but aren’t. Improperly created subpoenas can be challenged. Look for the word “subpoena” at the top of the document. The document should state whether you are being subpoenaed to provide records or to provide testimony, and who is sending the subpoena.

A subpoena duces tecum should state by which date you have to provide records, a clear and specific description of the required records, and where the records should be sent.

A subpoena ad testificandum should give the date, time, and location at which you must appear for court.

Responding to a subpoena

Don’t ignore a subpoena. Not responding can have legal consequences, such as the judge charging you with contempt of court, which can lead to fines, imprisonment, or both. If you do not know how to respond to a subpoena, contact a lawyer for assistance.

In general, you have to comply with the request in the subpoena. However, you can object to a subpoena if it makes unreasonable requests or for certain other reasons.

Objecting a subpoena

Contact a lawyer for assistance with an objection, filed as a motion to quash, or dismiss, a subpoena on specific grounds. You might object to a subpoena requiring you to appear in court 200 miles from home, or to provide 500 documents in 2 weeks, if it presents an unreasonable burden.

Other grounds for objection include factual inaccuracies in the subpoena, or if you do not have the information you are being asked to provide. If you have a schedule conflict on a court date, you can object and ask to reschedule, but some court dates cannot be changed.

Compensation

When you are subpoenaed to give testimony in court, compensation for your time and travel may be available, or even required to be enclosed along with the subpoena. You might also be able to recover your costs for copying documents you provide to the court. Ask a lawyer about the rules pertaining to your case.

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