What's a Subpoena, and Why Have I Been Served?
What to know and do if you’re given a subpoena in Georgia
on April 17, 2018
Updated on May 16, 2022
As the old adage goes: The pen is mightier than the sword. This is especially true nowadays. We rarely need to fear that someone will come at us with a sword drawn. However, many have heard their names called by a stranger, turned around and been greeted with, “You’ve been served.”
The subpoena is one of the most powerful tools a lawyer has at their disposal. Effectively, any bar-certified lawyer in the nation can, with a stroke of their pen, force private citizens to arrive at places, give up documentation and answer any question asked, truthfully. These court orders can overturn your life, and cost you hours of work and effort to prepare for them. Chances are good, at some point in your life, you will be subpoenaed for something.
If you’ve been served
If you are served with a subpoena, you must comply with it—even if you have to miss work—or risk contempt of court. You must show up where and when you are supposed to in order to comply with the legal document. If, however, you contact the attorney who has sent you the subpoena, you can often you work out an alternate day or time that works for the both of you. Courtesy goes a long way in the legal world.
Documents that are requested in the subpoena must be procured and handed over in some form, usually as hard copies on paper or as electronic copies. Electronic copies will also often suffice. It may take significant time to procure these documents, and often, an attorney hoping for your compliance will be willing to compensate you for your time if you ask for a reasonable hourly rate.
If an attorney is asking for production of documents that are confidential or privileged such as certain business records, you can refuse and request a hearing with the court to protect sensitive information. Anything relevant to the case must be produced, however, so prevention of document production is a tough and often expensive road that leads to little protection. A court may further place protective orders on sensitive documents that prevent them from being publicly shared.
Must I answer questions?
Depositions and in-court testifying can be incredibly stressful, but they don’t have to be. Only answer the questions that are asked, and instead of focusing on answers, focus on listening to what is asked of you. When answering, do not elaborate, even when asked to do so; give as short of an answer as possible. The attorneys will get the information they need upon asking the right questions, so don’t help them. Doing so will only hurt you.
Subpoenas can come from almost any area of the law. For example, in civil cases, such as a divorce, custody battle or support hearing, they are often used to elicit testimony or gather bank records. In a criminal case, you may be asked to speak as a witness (this is often called a witness subpoena). Many people who are served are often not the focus of an investigation or lawsuit. If you are not the defendant in a court case, there is often no real concern going into a deposition or court proceeding. If you’re not in trouble, there’s no need to worry unnecessarily about answering an attorney’s questions.
Subpoenas are court orders. Ignoring or dodging a subpoena is a crime—one that can result in jail time or fines, and is reflected on your criminal record.
If you are served with a subpoena, your first step should be to contact a reputable attorney for legal advice and to ensure you are protected and prepared for anything an opposing attorney may throw at you. They will be able to advise you on your exposure to legal liabilities, and prepare you for depositions and court dates.
For more information on this area of law, see our overview of criminal defense.