18 Sep 23

What to Do if You’ve Been Subpoenaed to a Federal Grand Jury

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Last Updated on: 29th September 2023, 10:32 am

What to Do if You’ve Been Subpoenaed to a Federal Grand Jury

Getting a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury can be intimidating. Most people have never been involved with the legal system before, so they don’t know what to expect or what their rights are. This article will walk you through the basics of federal grand juries and give you practical tips for responding to a subpoena.

What is a federal grand jury?

A federal grand jury is a group of 16-23 citizens who decide whether there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and to charge someone with that crime[2]. They hear evidence presented only by federal prosecutors — no judge is present and there is no defense lawyer in the room. Grand juries operate in secrecy, so what is said before them remains confidential[5].

If the grand jury decides there is probable cause, they will return an indictment charging the person with a federal crime. An indictment is just a formal accusation — it does not mean the person is guilty. The case will then move forward to trial, where guilt or innocence is determined[4].

Why did I get a subpoena?

There are a few possibilities:

  • You may be a witness — someone with information relevant to the investigation
  • You may be a subject — someone under investigation who may have committed a crime
  • You may be a target — someone who prosecutors have substantial evidence against and who they intend to indict[1]

The subpoena itself usually doesn’t say why you’ve been called to testify. Don’t panic yet — being subpoenaed doesn’t mean you’ll be indicted. But you should take it seriously and get legal help.

Get a lawyer

The most important thing to do is get advice from an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer. Do not go before the grand jury without a lawyer! Only a lawyer can fully protect your rights and interests in this process[5].

A lawyer can:

  • Negotiate with the prosecutor about the scope of testimony
  • Go with you to the grand jury session
  • Assert your Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions that could incriminate you
  • Object to improper questions
  • Ensure you don’t accidentally commit perjury

Don’t wait – call a lawyer as soon as you get the subpoena! The earlier a lawyer gets involved, the more they can do to protect you[4].

Understand what will happen

Testifying before a grand jury can be intimidating since the process is unfamiliar. Knowing what to expect can help you feel more confident. Here are the basics:

  • You will be brought into the grand jury room where up to 23 jurors will be sitting. Only the prosecutor will question you — no judge or defense lawyer will be present.
  • The prosecutor will begin by asking you to state your name and background information like your address and occupation.
  • The questioning will start broad, but the prosecutor may become more confrontational or skeptical.
  • You can refuse to answer any question by asserting your Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate yourself. Your lawyer will help you decide when to invoke this right.
  • The entire session is recorded by a court reporter, except when the jury deliberates and votes on an indictment.
  • You cannot discuss what happened in the grand jury with anyone, even your lawyer. Grand jury secrecy rules prohibit this.

While the experience may feel strange, remember you have important constitutional rights. Your lawyer is there to stand up for you if the prosecutor crosses a line[5].

Follow your lawyer’s advice

Listen carefully to your lawyer’s advice about testifying. They may recommend that you:

  • Assert your Fifth Amendment right and refuse to answer questions. You have a constitutional right not to provide testimony that could implicate you in a crime.
  • Answer limited questions about basic facts that will not incriminate you. This shows cooperation without jeopardizing your rights.
  • Testify fully because you have nothing to hide or your testimony may exonerate you.

Your lawyer knows your unique situation best and will guide you on the right approach. Following their advice is critical to protecting yourself[5].

Tell the truth

If you decide to testify, it is absolutely essential that you tell the complete truth. Here’s why:

  • Lying under oath – even about small details – is the crime of perjury, punishable by years in prison.
  • The prosecutor likely has more evidence than you realize, and lying will be discovered.
  • Admitting mistakes looks better than covering them up.
  • Honesty builds credibility with the grand jury and prosecutor.

Stick to what you definitely know – don’t speculate. Answer only the question asked, don’t volunteer extra information. Your lawyer will object if the prosecutor asks improper questions[4].

Don’t talk to others about your testimony

Grand jury proceedings are secret, and witnesses are prohibited from disclosing their testimony to anyone. That includes talking to:

  • Friends and family (even your spouse)
  • Work colleagues
  • The media

Violating grand jury secrecy can lead to being charged with obstruction of justice. So keep quiet – don’t even tell others you’ve testified. Let your lawyer handle all the talking[2].

Wait for next steps

After you testify, the grand jury may or may not choose to indict you or others involved in the case. If no indictment is returned, the investigation may continue and you could potentially be called to testify again. Your lawyer will advise you if that happens. If you are indicted, the case will move forward to trial[4].

Waiting for the outcome can be stressful. Rely on your lawyer’s counsel during this uncertain period. They can explain possible next steps and prepare your defense strategy.


Being subpoenaed by a federal grand jury is unsettling, but understanding the process and having an experienced lawyer on your side can give you confidence. Get legal help right away, follow your lawyer’s advice closely, and be truthful in your testimony. Handled properly, being called before a grand jury does not have to be a terrifying experience.