NATIONALLY RECOGNIZED FEDERAL LAWYERS
Last Updated on: 15th September 2023, 11:06 pm
How Courts Enforce Federal Grand Jury Subpoena Power
A federal grand jury has the power to demand documents and testimony from people as part of an investigation into possible crimes. This is called issuing a subpoena. But what happens if someone refuses to comply with a federal grand jury subpoena? As an attorney who has worked on these issues, I can explain how courts enforce compliance with federal grand jury subpoenas.
What is a Federal Grand Jury?
A federal grand jury is a group of citizens who listen to evidence about potential federal crimes. Prosecutors present the evidence to the grand jury. The grand jury decides whether there is enough evidence to charge someone with a crime.
Federal grand juries have legal powers regular citizens don’t have. One key power is the ability to demand documents, physical evidence, and testimony from people who may have information about a crime. This is called issuing a subpoena. If a grand jury subpoenas you, you are legally required to provide the information.
Refusing to Comply with a Federal Grand Jury Subpoena
Sometimes people don’t want to comply with a federal grand jury subpoena. For example, say the grand jury subpoenas your financial records as part of an investigation into potential bank fraud. You might not want to turn over your private financial information.
Can you just ignore the subpoena? No! A federal grand jury subpoena carries the force of law. If you refuse to comply, you could face legal consequences.
How Courts Enforce Federal Grand Jury Subpoenas
So what happens if you refuse to comply with a federal grand jury subpoena? The prosecutor can ask a federal court to force you to comply. Here is the basic process:
- The prosecutor asks the federal court to issue an order to show cause. This is an order requiring you to appear in court and explain why you didn’t comply with the subpoena.
- At the show cause hearing, the judge listens to both sides. You can explain why you didn’t comply. The prosecutor argues you should be forced to comply.
- The judge decides whether your refusal to comply was justified or not. If it wasn’t justified, the judge issues an order compelling you to comply with the subpoena.
If you continue refusing to comply after the court issues an order, you could be held in contempt of court. This means you defied a court order. Contempt of court can result in fines or jail time.
Are There Any Limits on Federal Grand Jury Subpoena Power?
Federal grand jury subpoena power is very broad. But there are some limits:
- The subpoena must relate to the investigation. A grand jury can’t just subpoena anything it wants.
- The subpoena can’t violate constitutional rights like the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
- Courts may quash or modify “unreasonable or oppressive” subpoenas.
However, these limits are narrow. Courts tend to defer to federal grand jury subpoena power. As one court put it, “the grand jury’s authority to subpoena witnesses is not only historic, but essential to its task” [Branzburg v. Hayes].
Challenging a Federal Grand Jury Subpoena
Let’s say you get a federal grand jury subpoena you think is invalid or abusive. Can you challenge it? Yes, but your options are limited. Here are some ways you can challenge a federal grand jury subpoena:
- File a motion to quash – Ask the court to cancel the subpoena entirely.
- File a motion to modify – Ask the court to narrow the scope of the subpoena.
- Claim a constitutional or legal privilege – For example, argue the subpoena violates your 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
But courts don’t often grant motions to quash or modify federal grand jury subpoenas. The bar to get a subpoena thrown out on constitutional or legal grounds is also very high. So challenging a federal grand jury subpoena is an uphill battle.
Pros and Cons of Federal Grand Jury Subpoena Power
Federal grand jury subpoena power has benefits but also raises concerns:
- Helps prosecutors gather evidence of federal crimes
- Broad subpoena power aids comprehensive investigations
- Power to compel testimony and documents can lead to critical breakthroughs
- Risks infringing on constitutional rights like due process and privacy
- Lack of public knowledge about many federal investigations
- Challenging an improper subpoena is difficult
There are good arguments on both sides. Reasonable people disagree on where to strike the right balance between investigative power and civil liberties.
Federal grand juries have expansive subpoena powers that courts are reluctant to second-guess. If you get a federal grand jury subpoena, you usually must comply or face legal consequences. Challenging a federal grand jury subpoena is very difficult. However, there are some limited grounds to potentially fight an improper subpoena.