The Purpose of a Subpoena
Court cases are proven with testimony. In order to prosecute defendants, the State has an obligation to present witnesses against a defendant to establish that he or she committed a crime. Everyone in the United States has a right to confront their accusers in criminal cases under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. That means a defendant, usually through a defense attorney, has a right to cross examine the witnesses that the State calls to the stand. Because of this, live testimony is required, and we cannot properly prove our cases without witnesses. This is why subpoenas are so important. Without a mechanism to order people and evidence to court, the State would be unable to prove criminal charges against defendants. Being served with a subpoena is a inconvenience, and we know that it disrupts the lives of people involved in cases. We try to minimize this disruption, but at the end of the day, our criminal justice system would not work without witness testimony.
Frequently Asked Questions
Anyone served with a subpoena must obey the subpoena’s request. Subpoenas can be used in court cases to order people to attend court, or to produce documents and evidence. Please check your subpoena to determine if there are any instructions you should follow regarding testimony, evidence you need to produce, or if you are eligible to be placed on telephone standby. Sometimes subpoenas come from our office, and sometimes they are issued by the defendant’s attorney, a judge, or the Clerk of Court. In Superior Court, a subpoena to appear and testify is effective for the entire session of court (usually a week). For District Court, subpoenas are for a specific day.
One of the attorneys in the case has determined that you may have evidence, testimony, or documents that will help prove to a judge or jury something important in a pending case. You may be an eye witness to something (or lack of something), know information that can corroborate or undermine another witness, or you have new information that has not been collected in your case. Some witnesses feel like they don’t know anything and would not be useful as a witness, or that being subpoenaed is going to cause problems at work or in their personal lives. If you are subpoenaed, you may choose to contest or fight the subpoena, but you will have to represent yourself or hire an attorney of your own to do that.
You must obey the subpoena, or face consequences from a judge. Failure to comply with a subpoena can result in an Order to Show Cause why you should not be fined or jailed, an Order for your Arrest, or a conviction for Contempt of Court. Victims and witnesses under subpoena should always update the District Attorney’s Office with any new contact information.
In some cases, we will allow witnesses our office subpoenas to be placed on telephone standby, meaning we will call you when needed during the court session. Telephone standby is usually reserved for felony cases in Superior Court. If you have been placed on standby, please stay by your phone and free your schedule to be able to appear in court once called. The standby system is for convenience, but you are still obligated to obey the subpoena and appear in court once called. We try to provide as much notice as possible about when you will be needed in court. We do not use the standby system in all cases. Only witnesses subpoenaed by our office may be placed on telephone standby. To find out if you are eligible to be placed on standby, please contact our office in the county where your case is pending.
If you wish to contest a subpoena, you may file the appropriate paperwork with the Clerk of Court, or hire an attorney to assist you in that process. Since we cannot represent individuals in legal matters, we cannot assist you with challenging a subpoena. We also cannot assist witnesses who have been subpoenaed by someone outside of our office, like by a judge or defense attorney.
Failure to comply with a subpoena could result in a judge issuing a show cause order or an order for arrest against you, which in turn could lead to a fine or imprisonment. Also, if the State is unable to secure the attendance of a witness or evidence, failure to comply with a subpoena could result in our office being unable to fully prosecute a case, leading to more lenient punishments or dismissal of the criminal charges.
Generally speaking, only the attorneys for the parties in the case (meaning the DA’s Office or defense attorney), or the Clerks’ Office have the authority to issue subpoenas. Victims in a case may speak to the Clerk of Court in the county where their case is pending about issuing subpoenas, but the victim will likely be referred to the DA’s Office anyway.
Victims in criminal cases are required to appear in court when served with a subpoena. The attorneys in a case are required to be ready for trial or for a hearing in front of a judge. In order to be fully prepared, attorneys will make sure witnesses are subpoenaed so there are not delays in the court process, and so employers and family members of witnesses and victims know that there is an order for that person to attend court.
If you initiated the criminal charges at the magistrate’s office, you are already under subpoena to appear in court on the time, date, and place indicated on your court paperwork.
For misdemeanors in District Court, that appearance is also mandatory if the victim initiated the charge in the first place through a magistrate. For felony cases, our office will contact victims and witness as necessary for court appearances, and we will issue subpoenas when needed to ensure cases can be properly prosecuted and proven in a courtroom.
The back of a subpoena includes instructions and references to the North Carolina law that controls subpoenas. Similar information is located on the back of the Criminal Complaint form. The law referenced can be found here. The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) form subpoena can be found here.