What Is a Subpoena and How Do They Work?

Regulatory Compliance Lawyer

Let’s start with the word itself. “Sub” means “under,” and it is used in many English words. “Poena” is the Latin word for “penalty.” It is also the root of the words “punish” and “pain.” Subpoena, then, literally means “under penalty.” The documents were first called subpoenas because, in the early 17th century, that was the phrase that began the document. “Under penalty…” 

Today, you may hear the word used in the reporting of government committee actions seeking documents or testimony from certain actors as the committee members try to collect information about a subject or event. Subpoenas were used a lot in the recent impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

Subpoena in Law 

In day-to-day lawyering, a subpoena is a tool used by a lawyer to get information from another party. The subpoena can come from the clerk of the court in which an action is filed, or from a lawyer as an agent of the court. There are specific court rules as to the format of the subpoena and how it is to be “served” to the person who is to produce the documents or appear for testimony. The party or attorney responsible for issuing and serving a subpoena must take reasonable steps to avoid imposing undue burden or expense on a person subject to the subpoena. A court is to enforce this duty and can apply sanctions, such as awarding attorney fees and fines, if the subpoena is not responded to.

Likewise, a court is to enforce a subpoena itself, on the party receiving it. If the party receiving a subpoena fails to respond, fails to show up to court to testify, or fails to produce the documents requested, the court may punish the non-responding party. The court may do this by forcing a response either to testify or produce documents, and by imposing fines and attorney’s fees incurred to issue the subpoena and motivate a response to the subpoena.

When Is a Subpoena Used?

Generally, attorneys work together to share evidence in a matter and other material needed to do their job at court. A subpoena is used when one attorney believes another attorney or party related to the matter is not likely to cooperate with a simple request to appear in court or to produce documents.

If the party receiving the subpoena really does not want to respond, thinks the information requested is not important to the case, that the request is too burdensome, or invades a right to privacy or other protection, they may tell that to the party issuing the subpoena. They also may have to tell this to the court.

Contact a Lawyer

Generally, people should respond to subpoenas, unless they have a really good — and legal — reason not to. If you are on the receiving end of a subpoena, and you are not a lawyer, you might want to talk to one about if and how you should respond. Contact a lawyer, like a Montana regulatory compliance lawyer from Silverman Law Office, for more information.