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Federal Agent Subpoenas vs Court Subpoenas: Key Differences

Federal Agent Subpoenas vs Court Subpoenas: Key Differences

Subpoenas are a common legal tool used to compel someone to testify, provide documents, or produce evidence related to an investigation or legal proceeding. However, there are important distinctions between subpoenas issued by federal agents as part of an investigation and subpoenas issued by a court.

What is a Subpoena?

A subpoena is a writ or legal document issued by a government agency or court ordering someone to testify as a witness or produce documents, records, or other evidence relevant to an investigation or legal proceeding. Subpoenas are used by federal and state law enforcement, administrative agencies, and courts.Subpoenas derive their authority from the issuing body. Failure to comply with a valid subpoena can result in civil or criminal penalties for contempt of court or obstruction of justice charges.

Key Differences

There are several key differences between subpoenas issued by federal agents and subpoenas issued by courts:

Issuing Authority

  • Federal Agent Subpoenas – Issued by federal agencies and agents such as the FBI, DEA, SEC, IRS, ICE, etc. as part of an investigation.
  • Court Subpoenas – Issued by a court clerk at the request of a party to a legal proceeding such as a civil lawsuit or criminal prosecution.

Legal Authority

  • Federal Agent Subpoenas – Authorized under agency policies and federal statutes governing investigations.
  • Court Subpoenas – Issued pursuant to court rules and procedural statutes giving courts authority to compel evidence.


  • Federal Agent Subpoenas – Used by agents to gather evidence during an investigation prior to making an arrest or filing charges.
  • Court Subpoenas – Used to gather evidence, compel witness testimony, and require document production after charges have been filed and legal proceedings are underway.


  • Federal Agent Subpoenas – Generally broader and allow agents to obtain wide categories of documents and records.
  • Court Subpoenas – Usually narrower in scope and precisely specify exact records or testimony required.

Challenging and Quashing

  • Federal Agent Subpoenas – Must file petition with agency or seek court order to modify or quash.
  • Court Subpoenas – Easier to challenge by filing motion with issuing court to quash or modify.


  • Federal Agent Subpoenas – Failure to comply may result in criminal fine or imprisonment for obstruction.
  • Court Subpoenas – Courts can impose civil or criminal contempt sanctions for failure to comply.


FBI Subpoena

FBI agents can issue subpoenas during investigations under authority granted by federal statutes and DOJ policy. For example, FBI agents issued subpoenas to compel production of phone and email records related to Russian election interference investigation. Targets could try to challenge in court but otherwise must comply or face obstruction charges.

Court Trial Subpoena

During a federal criminal prosecution and trial, the court issued subpoenas requiring witnesses to testify and ordering NSA to provide classified documents about mass surveillance program to assess relevance and discoverability under federal evidence rules. NSA had to negotiate with prosecutors what documents were relevant and could not simply refuse based on classification status.


For more information on federal agent subpoenas vs. court subpoenas, check out these additional resources:

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