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What is a Summons?

Updated on February 18, 2010

A summons, in American law, a formal document that gives notice to a person, in a criminal case, to appear in court to answer a charge against him or informs him, in a civil proceeding, that an action is being started against him.

Although, in form, it often resembles a court order, a summons is rarely issued by a judge. Policemen usually issue criminal summonses, and lawyers usually issue civil summonses.

Although a criminal summons is best known for its use in traffic cases, in which it is called a "ticket," it is also used for alleged violations of municipal ordinances, such as those relating to sanitation and building safety. Experimental projects, such as one conducted in 1964 by the Vera Institute of Justice in association with the New York City Police Department, have established the utility of issuing summonses in other minor criminal matters, for example, in shoplifting. This avoids unnecessary incarceration and allows the policeman to remain on his beat. See arrest.

A civil summons usually contains notice of what will happen if the person served fails to contest the action. In most cases the consequence is entry of a judgment for the amount of damages claimed. This requires proof that the summons was served as required by law. Sometimes corrupt professional process servers are shown to have engaged in "sewer service," the term given to the practice of filing false affidavits when actually the summons was never served on the designated person.


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