What is a Subpoena?

by Ambrosio Rodriguez | Oct 02, 2018 | Criminal Defense

When you’re arrested and charged with a crime in Los Angeles you have the right to defend yourself. In order to assert a strong defense, you’ll probably have to get some outside assistance. There may be witnesses who can offer helpful testimony or documents to support your case. What if a witness doesn’t want to cooperate and testify on your behalf? What if a company is unwilling to turn over documents or evidence that could be crucial to your case?

If the state needs a witness to cooperate or wants to obtain private documents, prosecutors can issue what is known as a subpoena. A subpoena is a court order that requires a person to do something (e.g., show up in court). Since it would be unfair to only allow prosecutors to issue subpoenas, California law also extends the subpoena power to criminal defendants.

Types of Subpoenas in Los Angeles Criminal Cases

There are two main types of subpoenas that can be used in a Los Angeles criminal case: witness subpoena and subpoena duces tecum. Subpoenas can be issued to parties or non-parties in a criminal case. Parties typically include witnesses with personal knowledge that is relevant to your case. Non-parties typically include people or companies that are not involved in your particular case but have information that is important and relevant.

Witness Subpoena

A witness subpoena, when issued properly, requires a person to appear personally in court. These can be incredibly helpful if you know that certain witnesses will be unwilling to participate in your defense willingly. They may hold key information that is crucial to the success of your defense arguments.

Subpoena Duces Tecum

The subpoena duces tecum (“SDT”) is one of the most powerful tools available to criminal defense attorneys. The SDT requires a person or company to disclose and provide documents that are relevant to your case. These documents are typically private and would be unattainable without the assistance of a subpoena. The SDT can require the person to show up in court and bring specific documents or information with them. Alternatively, the SDT can simply require the person to provide specified documents to the defense.

If documents are not provided by the date required by the subpoena, the court can step in on your behalf. The court has the authority to issue a warrant for the arrest of the custodian of the records that have not been disclosed. Continued refusal to comply with the SDT can have very serious consequences for the company. The threat of arrest typically encourages subpoena recipients to comply with requests for documents.

The Importance of Service of Process

Subpoenas can only be effective if they are served in compliance with state and local regulations. Service simply means that the person for whom the subpoena is intended is formally presented with the court order.

So, let’s say you want a witness to show up in court to testify on your behalf. Your attorney can issue a witness subpoena to require their presence in court. Once the subpoena is completed, the form must be personally served to that witness. This means that someone must physically hand the subpoena to the intended recipient. In most cases, anyone can serve a subpoena.

However, in criminal cases, defendants are prohibited from serving their own subpoenas. Instead, a peace officer typically serves the subpoena on behalf of the defendant. Once service is complete the officer must then make a written return of the service. Subpoenas that are not served properly are invalid.

What Happens If a Witness Ignores a Subpoena?

Even though the subpoena can be issued by a criminal defense attorney, it is still a valid court order. As a result, there are serious consequences for ignoring or violating a subpoena. If a witness refuses to show up in court or disclose documents they can be charged with contempt of court. If convicted, the punishment can include up to 6 months in a Los Angeles County Jail and $1,000 in fines.

It’s important to speak with an attorney if you’ve been arrested for a crime in Los Angeles. Contact the Rodriguez Law Group for help understanding your rights and options. We offer a free consultation, so call us for immediate legal assistance today.

To learn more, call our Los Angeles criminal defense law firm at 213-995-6767 or visit our contact us page to send us an email.