If you’ve ever watched an episode of Law and Order or other legal drama, then you’ve probably heard the fictional characters throw around terms like “subpoena” or “summons”—as in “I’m going to subpoena that witness” or “he just received a summons to testify.” But what exactly does all that mean?

The terms “subpoena” and “summons” are often used interchangeably, but there is one difference between them—subpoenas are used in criminal court, while summons are issued for civil proceedings. However, both are official court documents ordering an individual to provide evidence and/or testimony that the court feels he or she has regarding a particular case.

There are two types of subpoenas that are issued in criminal court. Depending on the type of information the witness has, he or she will either receive a subpoena duces tucum or an ad testificandum subpoena. Latin for the term “records only,” the duces tucum subpoena requires the person to produce certain documentation or evidence relevant to the case.

An ad testificandum subpoena, on the other hand, requires the witness to testify in court. In some cases, both subpoenas may be issued to an individual if the court believes he or she can provide useful testimony and documentation.

It is important to know that, once you are given a subpoena or summons, you are legally required to attend the proceeding indicated on the document and serve as a witness for the case in question. Failure to comply with the court’s order can lead to severe penalties, including a warrant being issued for your arrest. In some states, you may even be fined, lose your driver’s license, or spend time in jail if do not appear at the proceeding indicated in the subpoena. With such severe consequences, it’s no surprise to learn that the term means “under penalty” in Latin!

Due to their importance, subpoenas are not typically sent through the mail. Instead, they are hand-delivered and “served” by an employee of the court—a person known as a process server. In most areas, this individual must be over the age of 18 and in uniform at the time he or she delivers the document to a witness.

Once you have been served with a summons or subpoena, it is important to read the document very carefully to understand what is required from you. If you have questions or concerns about a recently received subpoena or summons, it is important to speak with an attorney in your area immediately. If you are unable to attend the proceeding, for example, you may be able to request a postponement. Likewise, if you feel you cannot meet the terms of the subpoena, you have the right to object to it.

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