A subpoena is an order of the court requiring you to appear in court at the stated time and place. You may receive your subpoena by mail or in person. You received the subpoena because the District Attorney’s Office or the defendant’s attorney believes you have information relating to a criminal case against the defendant. The law requires this information to be given in court, under oath to ensure the prosecution and the accused have a fair and impartial trial. If you fail to appear in court or refuse to testify, the court can issue a warrant for your arrest.
The time spent while actually testifying may not take long and it depends upon many factors. The majority of your time at court will be spent waiting to testify. You and your family and friends are encouraged to bring a book or magazine to read while you wait.
Because unforeseeable problems can arise, cases are frequently continued and inconvenience for witnesses cannot be avoided. The case may not take place as scheduled for various reasons, including: 1) the defendant pleads guilty or 2) the case is rescheduled to another date. Your patience and commitment are essential to serving justice and are greatly appreciated.
Also, please arrange for child care if you have children. Court rules prohibit children in criminal courtrooms. The Victim/Witness Assistance Program, however, may be able to assist you in providing for childcare.
The District Attorney
The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for prosecuting the defendant. If you are subpoenaed as a witness by the District Attorney’s Office, the deputy district attorney handling the case will be asking you questions during “direct examination.”
A preliminary hearing is not a trial by jurors, but a hearing by a judge to decide whether the defendant should stand trial for the alleged felony crimes. Not all of the evidence is presented at the preliminary hearing, and your testimony may or may not be required at this stage.
You may be contacted by a deputy district attorney or a district attorney investigator for further interviews about the facts of the case before the preliminary hearing or trial. Sometimes the defendant’s attorney or investigator working for the defense will also contact witnesses before the preliminary hearing or trial. You have the right to choose whether you will speak to anyone about the case outside of court. If you are unsure who you are speaking to, ask for a business card and an explanation of their role in the case. You may wish to have a person of your choosing present or a tape recorder to avoid later misunderstandings or misquotations.
Court or Jury Trial
A court or jury trial in a felony or misdemeanor case will ordinarily occur from one month to twelve months after the charges are filed. In some exceptional cases, it may take longer. In a misdemeanor case, your testimony will usually be required only during a trial. For felony cases, you may be required to testify at both the preliminary hearing and trial. If the defendant pleads guilty after the preliminary hearing, you will not be required to testify at trial.
The Defense Attorney
The defendant will be represented at the preliminary hearing or trial by a private attorney or a public defender. The defense attorney will question you after the deputy district attorney finishes questioning you. This is called “cross-examination.” They are entitled to ask you these questions subject to “objections” by the prosecutor and the judge deciding whether the question is proper. You should not take these questions as a personal attack on you.
Whether a witness receives any witness fee is at the discretion of the court. A court may order that you receive witness fees (not to exceed $12 to 18 per day) plus reasonable and necessary expenses after testifying. It is the civic duty of all citizens to come to court and testify when subpoenaed as a witness to ensure a fair justice system.