The only thing more nerve wracking than a Deputy Sheriff showing up at your door unannounced is getting a piece of certified mail from an unknown sender. It is only rarely that good news comes in the form of unexpected certified mail.
One of the things that comes certified mail (or overnight mail, or something you have to sign for so there is proof of receipt) is a subpoena. Subpoenas take two basic forms: witness subpoenas, in which you yourself have to show up at a certain time at a certain place; and subpoenas for the production of evidence, in which you have to bring certain documentation to a certain time at a certain place.
Subpoenas are non-negotiable. The first line of your standard witness subpoena begins, “You are hereby commanded, that laying all other business aside, you be and appear at……..” The “laying all other business aside” thing is for real. Nothing trumps a subpoena in importance. Not a doctor’s appointment – not surgery – not work, not exams, not your sick child, not nothing. And no, you are likely not going to be compensated for your time, although in certain circumstances you are entitled to a mileage reimbursement for the distance you had to drive. If you fail to lay all other business aside, you could potentially go to jail.
There are reasons why a subpoena aren’t valid, and you can, in those circumstances, get out of it, usually by way of a Motion to Quash the subpoena, which means you have to show up to argue the Motion. Also, lawyers and judges are, despite popular opinion, human beings who are generally not unsympathetic to what life throws at you. If you have saved up for forty years for a trip to Europe and you are subpoenaed to be in Court the day you are supposed to be in Rome, and you call the people who subpoenaed you they will usually work with you. If you have a legitimate medical reason, they will likewise try to work with you. But if they won’t, or can’t (and sometimes they really truly can’t) and it is a valid subpoena, you have to show. You just have to.
Although there is a date and time on a subpoena, that may not be the only date and time you have to be there. Generally there is a line that says something like, “You are required to attend from day to day and from time to time until the matter is disposed of.” Trial calendars can be for the day, for the week, or for several weeks. The truth of the matter is that it isn’t until last minute that anyone knows which day a particular case is going to be called for trial. This is an imperfect system, but given the likelihood of cases to be continued or to resolve themselves on their own, there have to be several cases in the on-deck circle or we’d never get anything done.
This is frustrating. I know this is frustrating. And it can seriously derail your plans. Just know it is that which you cannot change, and it doesn’t matter your profession or station in life, the law treats you equally. Last week I was called as a witness in a case. I ended up sitting in the Courthouse for seven hours spread over two days, and I never even took the stand due to a last minute decision by the folks who asked me to be there not to call me. It aggravated the heck out of me. I was paid not a single penny, I was not greeted by the folks who subpoenaed me, and it caused me to miss out on appointments with paying clients and miss some valuable family time, as it was during a school break. But such is life. No one could control when the matter went to trial. No one knew what the other testimony would look like until it happened, and no one knew if my testimony was going to be redundant or contradictory to the other witnesses until they actually said what they were going to say. Of course, it would have been nice if someone popped their head out from time to time and said something like, “It will be at least an hour: you can go run out and get a cup of coffee if you like. Thank you so much for coming, and I’m sorry we’re wasting your time.” But hey – justice and professional courtesy don’t always go hand in hand. I will consider it a learning experience, and make sure that the next time I subpoena a witness I am extra careful of not wasting any of the witness’ time, or at the very least taking the time to express my apologies and gratitude.
Our justice system is based upon the Court system. Without witnesses, there can be no trials, and without no trials, there can be no justice. A few hours seem a small sacrifice to make for a noble purpose like that.
This article was written by a lawyer, but should not be considered legal advice in any way, shape, or form. It is written for general (and generally vague) informational purposes only. In order to properly evaluate your case, a lawyer must examine all the facts and circumstances that are particular and personal to your situation. I have not done that here