What is a subpoena?

Subpoenas are formal legal documents used in civil and criminal cases to order someone to bring documents or other physical evidence to a court proceeding, or to order someone to appear to testify at a court proceeding.     

Because a subpoena is a legal order, a person who does not obey a subpoena may be subject to civil or criminal penalties, such as fines, jail time, or both.  

In what kinds of cases can I use a subpoena?

Generally, you can use subpoenas in both court cases and in cases before an administrative agency.  There are different procedural rules for obtaining subpoenas based on the legal setting of your case.     

  • If you have an administrative hearing before the Office of Administrative Hearings, see Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR) 28.02.01.14

The following information applies to the use of subpoenas in Maryland District Court:

When do I need to use a subpoena?

You should use a subpoena if someone has evidence that will be helpful for your case and you want them to bring it to your hearing or trial or if there is a witness you want to testify in your case.  Even if you think the person will give you the evidence or testify voluntarily, you should still consider getting a subpoena.  Some employers will not let employees miss work if there is not a subpoena demanding their presence at the hearing or trial.

How do I get a subpoena?

If you do not have an attorney to represent you, you must get the paper form from the court clerk.  The subpoena is free but you have to pay if you want the Sheriff or clerk to serve it.

What information goes in a subpoena?

The subpoena form MUST contain:

  • The caption identifying the action, 
  • The name and address of the person to whom it is directed,
  • The name of the person who is requesting the subpoena,
  • The date, time, and place where attendance is required, and
  • A detailed description of any documents or other items to be produced.

How do I serve a subpoena?

A subpoena must be served by delivering a copy to the person named or to an agent designated to receive service on their behalf, or by mailing the subpoena to them using certified, restricted mail. A sheriff of any county or any person who is not a party to the case and who is at least 18 years old can serve a subpoena.  You are not allowed to serve a subpoena in your own case.  For more information about service rules, see Frequently Asked Questions About “Service of Process” in Maryland.

Unless it is not practical to do so, you should try to have the subpoena served at least five (5) days before the trial or hearing.

Will the person object to my subpoena?

It is possible that the person receiving a subpoena might object to the request to provide testimony or produce documents.  The person objecting would have to file a motion or objection explaining why they should not have to obey the subpoena. The District Court can “quash” (revoke) or modify the subpoena to protect the person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense.

What happens if the person does not obey the subpoena?

Since a subpoena is a legal order, the District Court can impose civil or criminal penalties if the person does not obey it.  If the person does not come to the hearing or trial, you can ask the court to issue an order for “body attachment” or to make the person pay a fine. Body attachment means that the person would be physically brought before the court by a sheriff or peace officer and held in contempt or placed under arrest.

Source: 

Written by Mary Noor, University of Baltimore School of Law Civil Advocacy Clinic (Spring 2016), practicing pursuant to Rule 16 of the Rules Governing Admission to the Bar of Maryland. Edits by Regina Strait, Esq.

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