My Legal Rights as a Subpoenaed Witness

If you’re subpoenaed as a witness, you are legally obligated to appear and testify in court and other legal proceedings. It’s within your legal rights as a subpoenaed witness to request a postponement of appearance and to invoke the Fifth Amendment while on the stand. Unfortunately, postponements are extremely difficult to obtain and you will be placed under arrest for failure to appear in court. Learn more about your legal rights as a witness in our free legal guide below.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 9, 2021

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Unlike a summons, a witness subpoena is a writ issued by a court or other governmental agency having the appropriate authority. A subpoena, which means under penalty in Latin, compels the person served to comply with whatever is requested in the subpoena. If a person is compelled to appear and testify in court or other legal proceeding, they are under a legal obligation to do so. If a subpoena requires that a person produce certain documents or other items, they are legally required to do that as well. Failure to comply with a subpoena is a criminal matter. At the discretion of judges, failure to comply can result in a contempt of court charges for which there are penalties including fines and jail time.

What are the types of witnesses subpoenaed?

  • Expert Witnesses
  • Eye Witnesses
  • Character Witnesses

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Can you request a postponement?

If you have been subpoenaed as a witness, you may request a postponement of appearance. Unfortunately, postponements are extremely difficult to obtain. If the reason for the postponement request is not related to a death or severe illness, you must to appear on the date and time listed in the subpoena. Additionally, even if a postponement is granted, it is still just that – a postponement.’You will still have to appear in court on the reappearance date issued by the courts.

Will you be protected?

If a witness feels that their sworn testimony may implicate them in the matter in which they are testifying or in another matter not the subject of the legal proceeding in question, another protection may be afforded to the witness. This protection is given pursuant to the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Fifth Amendment gives individuals the right to refuse to answer any questions or make any statements if doing so would result in establishing that the person committed a crime. This right is also known as the “privilege against self-incrimination.” In a criminal trial, this right is not reserved exclusively for defendants. Privilege against self incrimination extends to witnesses as well. However, unlike a defendant in a criminal case who has the right not to refuse to take the witness stand, a witness may be subpoenaed and forced to take the stand. Yet once they invoke their right to “plead the Fifth,” their testimony cannot be compelled. That is, a witness may not be forced to answer any incriminating questions.

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