Subpoena Definition – Legal Meaning & Lawyer Explanation


In U.S. Law, “subpoena” from the Latin term meaning “under penalty,” is a written document and command from the courts requiring a person to take a certain action like appearing as a witness or handing over a piece of evidence.

Attorneys use subpoenas to get the information required to prove or disprove the claims presented in both civil and criminal cases.

1-min audio clip with attorney Darryl Isaacs, discussing subpoena:

There are two basic types of subpoenas:

subpoena ad testificandum (pronounced “ad test- tee-fee-kan-doom”) – This is a written demand for someone to appear in person, via phone, or video before the courts to testify about certain claims or events.

subpoena duces tecum (pronounced “doo-seez tay-koom”) – This is a written demand for a person to turn over physical evidence like documents, photos or videos.

The delivery of a subpoena will often happen by hiring a processor, sheriff or bailiff. As the literal meaning “under penalty” implies, a subpoena comes with consequences, which can involve fines and jail time, if not responded to within a given time frame.

Related terms:

DEPOSITION SUBPOENA: This type of written command requires a person who is not actually a party in the case to make a statement under oath or provide certain documents before any kind of trial begins. Deposition subpoenas are considered part of the discovery process.

1-Minute Video defining subpoena:


What Does Subpoena Mean? – Let’s Break It Down in Layman’s Terms:

A subpoena typically begins its life in the courtroom when it gets written up by a clerk, lawyer or approved officer of the court. From there it will get delivered or “served” to the appropriate persons, with the attorneys often hiring a sheriff to keep it official and to guarantee the order is received. Once received, the clock starts and certain actions must be taken or the recipient will face legal consequences. The goal of a subpoena is to get information essential to a case that might not otherwise be obtainable with a simple request.

You might hear “subpoena” used like this, here’s what it means:

“She’s not going to hand over her income tax return, we’ll have to subpoena those documents from her.”

The person involved in the dispute is refusing to voluntarily hand over the documents we need to review. We’ll have to get the courts to require her to do it or face legal penalties.

(Note: In this circumstance, subpoena is actually used as a verb)

“The files on that computer are now under subpoena.”

The court has issued the demand for computer files to be turned over as evidence.

Recently added glossary terms:

Find more essential legal terms by clicking the image below:

Glossary Logo-Fa-04

Have “Hammer”
On Your Side
More than 30 years of personal Injury law experience.
Former prosecutors who know how the "other side" operates.
Get 100% Personalized, one-on-one attention for your case.
Hammer Tough negotiators and proven trial lawyers.
Accessibility and availability – clients can always reach our attorneys.
Free Consultation & Case Evaluation

Representatives are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 800-800-8888 Now

Hammer’s Guarantee: You will pay nothing until we win your case!

Other Case Types Served By Darryl “The Hammer” Isaacs

Service Icon

Car Accidents

When you've been in a car wreck, you need an experienced lawyer to who knows the law to protect your interests .

Read More
Service Icon

Big Truck Accidents

When you've been in a car wreck, you need an experienced lawyer to who knows the law to protect your interests .

Read More
Service Icon

Wrongful Death Cases

When you've been in a car wreck, you need an experienced lawyer to who knows the law to protect your interests .

Read More

Louisville Office

Isaacs & Isaacs1601 Business Center Ct Louisville,
KY. 40299

Mon - Fri 8:30am - 5:00pm


Lexington Office

Isaacs & Isaacs2333 Alexandria DriveLexington,
KY. 40504

Mon - Fri 8:30am - 5:00pm


Indianapolis Office

Isaacs & Isaacs201 N Illinois St #1600 Indianapolis,
IN. 46204

Mon - Fri 8:30am - 5:00pm


Cincinnati Office

Isaacs & Isaacs201 E 5th St, FL 19 Cincinnati,
OH. 45202

Mon - Fri 8:30am - 5:00pm