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When a federal agency serves a subpoena on your company seeking customer information, it can raise challenging legal issues. As a third party not directly involved in the government’s investigation, you may have questions about your responsibilities and options for responding. This article provides an overview of common scenarios where federal agencies subpoena customer data from third parties, as well as best practices for handling the requests.
Federal agencies like the FBI, SEC, and IRS have broad authority to issue administrative or grand jury subpoenas to further their investigations. These subpoenas allow the government to obtain documents, records, testimony or other evidence relevant to an ongoing case.Third-party subpoenas specifically demand information from companies or individuals not directly under investigation but who may have useful information. For example, an internet company may receive a subpoena seeking IP addresses or account details tied to a customer under investigation. Or a bank may get a subpoena for a customer’s financial records.Ignoring or failing to fully comply with a federal subpoena can lead to contempt charges and substantial fines or jail time for company executives. However, businesses do have certain rights when responding to these requests.
Upon receiving a federal subpoena, legal counsel should carefully review it to determine appropriate next steps. Key items to evaluate include:
Carefully vetting these elements enables companies to respond appropriately to valid requests while also asserting legal protections around overly broad, irrelevant or sensitive subpoena demands.
An important consideration when handling federal subpoenas is whether and when impacted customers should be informed of the requests.
Deciding whether to inform customers of data requests requires balancing competing priorities:Reasons to notify
Reasons not to notify
While balancing these factors is situational, having established internal policies and procedures around customer notifications can guide decision-making.
Once a subpoena’s validity is confirmed, the next step is timely and complete production of the records it specifies. As large volumes of data may require compilation, companies can sometimes negotiate reasonable extensions for federal document requests.However, the timeframe should not excessively delay investigations. Agencies can impose daily fines for contempt if production lags without justification.Other best practices include:
Documenting the production process while following these measures demonstrates the company’s good faith in complying with federal orders.
While federal agencies have wide authority to compel information, checks on that power also exist. Third parties can raise legal objections to subpoenas requesting excessively wide-ranging customer data or imposing unreasonable burdens in compiling it.Common bases for challenging subpoenas in court include:
Motions to quash or modify problematic subpoenas may persuade investigators to narrow their requests. Alternately, bringing the issue before a federal judge can prompt court-ordered changes to the subpoena’s breadth or production timeline.However, companies should use caution with wholesale resistance that seems intended to impede investigations. This risks aggravating federal agencies and potential contempt charges. The better approach is reasoned, evidence-based objections showing willingness to comply within appropriate boundaries.
Finally, purpose-built software and services can assist companies with efficient, compliant handling of federal subpoenas and data requests. Features to look for include:
Leveraging such solutions, especially for larger or complex data requests, helps systematize compliance while reducing risk.
Responding to federal subpoenas creates challenges for companies trying to balance customer trust with legal obligations. While exceptions exist, cooperating fully with valid government investigations is usually the prudent approach. Maintaining constructive engagement, supported by clear policies and efficient processes, can guide organizations through difficult data sharing scenarios. With an understanding of federal subpoena powers and best practices around notifications, record production and challenging overreach, businesses can appropriately handle these sensitive situations as they arise.
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