21 Jan 24

Subpoenaed as a Witness? Your Rights and Responsibilities Under Federal Law

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

Subpoenaed as a Witness? Your Rights and Responsibilities Under Federal Law

Being subpoenaed as a witness can be an intimidating and confusing experience. As a witness, you have certain rights and responsibilities that are important to understand. This article provides an overview of key things to know if you are subpoenaed to testify in a federal court case.

What is a Subpoena?

A subpoena is a legal document issued by a court ordering you to appear to testify as a witness in a trial, hearing, deposition or other legal proceeding. Federal subpoenas are issued under the authority of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 45 or Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 17.Subpoenas can be issued to both fact witnesses and expert witnesses. Fact witnesses testify to facts and events they directly observed or know about. Expert witnesses testify to provide specialized knowledge, opinions, analysis or conclusions based on their expertise.

Being Served with a Subpoena

For a subpoena to be valid, you have to be properly served with it. This means someone (usually a process server, U.S. Marshal or other law enforcement officer) has to personally deliver a copy of the subpoena document to you.You may receive a “subpoena duces tecum” which is a subpoena ordering you to produce documents or other tangible evidence relevant to the case. Make sure to check if you need to bring any evidence with you.

Complying with a Federal Subpoena

In most cases, if you are properly served with a federal subpoena, you are legally required to comply. This means showing up at the specified time and place to testify. Exceptions are very limited. Reasons you may be excused include:

  • Undue hardship or burden
  • Privileges protecting disclosure like doctor-patient confidentiality
  • Danger to national security

If you have concerns about the subpoena or reasons you should not have to comply, consult an attorney right away to understand your options.

Your Rights as a Witness

Even though witnesses are not the ones “on trial”, you still have important rights under federal law including:

Right Against Self-Incrimination

The Fifth Amendment protects your right not to provide testimony that could implicate you in criminal activity. You can “plead the Fifth” if answering a question truthfully could potentially incriminate you.

Right to Be Free from Harassment

Questioning is supposed to be relevant and not harass or intimidate you. Object if you feel questioning is abusive.

Right to Review Evidence

You have the right to review evidence related to your testimony including documents and photographs. Request to review anything you are questioned about.

Right to Counsel

The Sixth Amendment guarantees your right to have an attorney present when being questioned. Hire one or request court-appointed counsel.

Right to Reasonable Fees and Expenses

Under federal law, witnesses must be reasonably compensated for their time and reimbursed for expenses like travel, lodging and meals. The party that issued the subpoena is responsible for this.

Responsibilities of a Witness

You also have important responsibilities as a witness. Be sure to:

  • Tell the Truth – It is illegal to intentionally lie while under oath. Perjury charges can result.
  • Answer All Valid Questions – Avoid “pleading the Fifth” for questions that would not incriminate you.
  • Comply with Court Rules – Follow all instructions from court staff and do not disrupt proceedings.
  • Avoid Contact with Case Participants – Do not discuss your testimony with attorneys, parties to the case, jurors or anyone else involved.

During Your Testimony

Being questioned on the witness stand can feel intimidating but understanding the process will help you prepare:

  • You will first be “sworn in” and asked to swear an oath to tell the truth
  • The attorney who summoned you will ask you questions first
  • The opposing attorney can then cross-examine you asking additional questions
  • Answer questions verbally. No head nods or “uh huh” so your answers are clear
  • Speak slowly and clearly. Pause before answering to consider your response
  • Ask for clarification if you do not understand a question
  • Answer only the question asked. Do not volunteer additional information beyond what is asked


Being subpoenaed as a witness imposes legal obligations but also grants you important rights under federal law. Understanding these rights as well as your responsibilities is key to properly complying with a subpoena. Consult an attorney if you have any concerns or questions about a federal subpoena you received. They can provide guidance tailored to your specific situation.


What is a Subpoena? – Avvo Subpoena Service Overview – US Marshals for Motion to Quash Subpoena – Justia Rights in Criminal Cases – FindLaw