21 Jan 24

Contempt of Court: Federal Subpoena Enforcement When Defiance Occurs

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Last Updated on: 21st January 2024, 10:46 pm


What is Contempt of Court?

Contempt of court basically means you’ve disobeyed or ignored a court order or command. There are two main types:

  • Civil Contempt – when you fail to follow a court order. The goal here is to force you to comply. Fines or jail time are possible until you follow the order.
  • Criminal Contempt – when you willfully disrespect the court or interfere with court proceedings. The goal here is to punish past behavior. Fines or jail time are imposed as punishment.

So if you ignore or don’t comply with a subpoena, you could be held in contempt.

What is a Subpoena?

A subpoena is a court order that requires you to do something. There are two kinds:

  • Subpoena Duces Tecum – an order to produce documents, records, or evidence.
  • Subpoena Ad Testificandum – an order to appear in court or at a deposition to give testimony.

If you get subpoenaed as a witness and don’t show up, or you fail to turn over documents, you could face contempt charges.

Why Would I Get a Federal Subpoena?

The federal government issues subpoenas during all kinds of investigations and legal proceedings, including:

  • Federal criminal investigations – like FBI or DEA investigations into drug trafficking, financial crimes, public corruption, etc.
  • Federal regulatory investigations – like SEC or EPA investigations into companies or individuals.
  • Federal civil lawsuits – like employment discrimination cases or patent disputes.
  • Congressional investigations – like the January 6th commission or impeachment inquiries.

So if you get looped into something like this as a witness or are asked to provide evidence, you could get a federal subpoena.

What Happens If I Ignore a Federal Subpoena?

It’s generally a bad idea to just ignore a federal subpoena. Here’s a quick rundown of what could happen:

  • Contempt Charges – If you disregard a subpoena without an extremely good reason, you could be held in contempt of court – either civil or criminal contempt depending on the situation.
  • Fines – The court can impose fines until you comply. For civil contempt related to subpoenas, fines can be $1,000 or more per day.
  • Jail Time – The court may order U.S. Marshals to arrest you and hold you in jail until you comply. For criminal contempt, jail time is punitive and meant to punish past defiance.
  • Obstruction Charges – In more serious cases, ignoring a subpoena could potentially lead to criminal charges like obstruction of justice.

So in most cases, fines or jail time are on the table if you just blow off a federal subpoena.

When Can I Legally Ignore a Federal Subpoena?

There are a few scenarios where you may be able to legally avoid complying with a federal subpoena:

  • Invalid Subpoena – If the subpoena lacks critical details or was not issued properly, it may be invalid and unenforceable against you.
  • Undue Burden – If complying would place an extreme hardship on you, you may file a “motion to quash” the subpoena with the court.
  • Privileged Information – Information covered by attorney-client privilege, doctor-patient confidentiality, spousal privilege, or other protections may be exempt.

An experienced federal defense lawyer can review your situation and file the paperwork to fight an improper or unfair subpoena. But in general, you need a rock-solid reason to avoid compliance.

What Should I Do if I’m Subpoenaed by the Federal Government?

Here are some tips if you get hit with a federal subpoena:

  • Don’t Panic – I know it seems scary, but don’t freak out. Just get some good legal advice on next steps.
  • Read Carefully – Review the subpoena closely to understand what is being asked of you. Note any deadlines.
  • Consult a Lawyer – Connect with a federal defense attorney immediately to protect your rights.
  • Negotiate – Your lawyer may be able to negotiate with prosecutors for less burdensome terms.
  • File Motions – If there are good grounds to quash or modify the subpoena, your lawyer can file motions with the court.
  • Comply – If you ultimately have to comply, work closely with your attorney to do so properly.

Having an experienced federal defense lawyer on your side can make all the difference. They’ll advise you on the best response and represent your interests every step of the way.

How Can a Federal Defense Lawyer Help Me?

If you get hit with a federal subpoena and are worried about getting held in contempt down the road, a federal defense attorney can provide enormous help, including:

  • Analyzing the subpoena to determine if you have grounds not to comply
  • Negotiating with federal prosecutors for reasonable modifications if needed
  • Drafting and filing “motions to quash” or modify improper subpoenas
  • Requesting alternative options like written statements instead of personal testimony
  • Helping you properly prepare documents for production
  • Representing you in contempt of court hearings if defiance allegations arise
  • Arguing against contempt fines or jail time if you’re found in defiance

Having an experienced federal defense attorney in your corner could make the difference between a reasonable outcome or serious contempt penalties. Don’t go it alone.

What Are the Penalties for Criminal Contempt of a Federal Court Order?

If a federal court determines you willfully defied a court order like a subpoena, you could face criminal contempt charges. This is no joke – penalties can include:

  • Up to 6 months in jail for standard criminal contempt
  • Up to 1 year in jail for violating certain court orders, like subpoenas compelling testimony
  • Up to 5 years in jail if your defiance disrupted courtroom proceedings
  • Potential criminal fines up to $100,000 for individuals or $200,000 for organizations
  • Possible additional federal charges for serious cases

And these penalties can stack if you have multiple instances of defiance. So criminal contempt is extremely serious business in the federal system.

How Can I Get Help Responding to a Federal Subpoena?

If you’ve been served with a federal subpoena and need experienced legal help, here are some options:

  • Search the Avvo directory to find rated federal defense lawyers in your state or city.
  • Check or FindLaw for federal defense attorney listings near you.
  • Ask friends or contacts for referrals to federal defense lawyers they’ve used.
  • Reach out to local law schools with criminal defense clinics that may be able to help.
  • Search state Bar Association directories for federal criminal defense specialists.
  • Check if you qualify for free/low-cost help from Federal Defenders or legal aid groups.




Federal Resources