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What is a Subpoena?

Updated on February 9, 2010

A subpoena is an order by a court or legislative authority that requires the attendance of a witness to give testimony at a specified time and place, under penalty if the order is disobeyed. In modern practice in the United States, a subpoena has a variety of uses. They are issued by lawyers for the parties to a suit; by a grand jury for witnesses to a possible crime; by a prosecutor; by a coroner, in certain states; by legislative committees, notably those of Congress; and by Administrative agencies.

A subpoena duces tecum (under penalty bring with you) requires that pertinent books, papers, or records be produced either at a trial or at the taking of a deposition. As a general rule, the power to compel testimony by subpoena implies the authority for a duces tecum requirement. Under the uniform act to secure the attendance of witnesses from outside a state in criminal proceedings, adopted by most states of the United States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, it has been held that a subpoena can include an order to produce records, even though the power to require such production is not specified in the controlling statute.

The issuance of a subpoena is usually regarded as a matter of right rather than as discretionary with the court. A valid subpoena must be issued by an officer authorized by the court. It must be personally served within the proper time and at a proper place. A subpoena has considerably more force than a summons. Disobedience of a subpoena constitutes contempt of court, and may be punished by fine or imprisonment or both.

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