“Subpoena Duces Tecums” in California Criminal Cases

A “subpoena duces tecum,” or (“SDT”) is a court order that requires a person to produce certain documents or pieces of evidence at a hearing or trial in a criminal case. Under California law, either a prosecutor or the defendant may request evidence or a witness by means of an SDT.

Some examples of when a party may use an SDT include:

A party that receives a subpoena duces tecum must give the requested documents/evidence to the judge presiding over the case. The judge then conducts an in-camera hearing to determine whether the party requesting the materials may, in fact, receive them.

An SDT is typically given, or served, to a person by:

  • Hand-delivery,
  • E-mail, or
  • Certified mail.

A party that refuses to comply with an SDT may be punished with contempt of court. Contempt of court is a California misdemeanor (as opposed to a felony) that may be punished by:

  • Up to six months in county jail; and/or,
  • A maximum fine of $1,000.

There are limited situations when a witness is authorized to not comply with a subpoena duces tecum. One example is when the documents being requested are privileged.

In contrast to an SDT is a “subpoena ad testificandum,” (or “subpoena) which requests that a person testify in court, rather than produce documents or evidence.

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

delivery of subpoena
A “subpoena duces tecum,” or (“SDT”) is a court order that requires a person to produce certain documents or pieces of evidence at a hearing or trial in a criminal case.

1. The Legal Definition of a Subpoena Duces Tecum in California Criminal Cases

A subpoena duces tecum comes into play in a criminal case when a party (either the prosecutor or the defendant) needs documents or other evidence from another person or entity.

Sometimes these documents/evidence can be obtained if the person or entity, in possession of them, signs an authorization form that releases the materials to an attorney.1

If authorization is not given, then the attorney requesting the information issues an SDT, which requires a witness to produce the records/evidence being sought.2

Some examples of documents and evidence that is sought after in a criminal case include:

  • Blood test information,
  • DNA samples,
  • Income tax returns,
  • Employee records, and
  • Photographs.

An SDT must set forth three key bits of information with relation to the above materials. These are:

  1. The specific documents/evidence that a party wants produced;
  2. A showing of why these materials are important to the case at hand; and,
  3. A statement that the witness has these materials in his possession or control.

2. The In-Camera Hearing

Once a subpoena duces tecum is issued, the witness does not deliver the documents to the attorney that requested them.

Rather, the documents and/or evidence are sent to the judge presiding over the case. The judge then reviews them and decides if the defense or the prosecutor is entitled to them.3 This process is referred to as an “in camera hearing.” A similar type of hearing is held in California Pitchess motions.

If the judge finds that a party should receive the materials, then they are sent to the attorney. However, the materials are sent back to the witness if the judge finds that they are not “relevant” to the case.

3. Serving a Subpoena Duces Tecum

An SDT is requested by an attorney. The clerk of the court then typically issues the subpoena. Once issued, the SDT must then be given, or served, to the witness in possession of the requested materials.

A subpoena duces tecum is commonly served in the following ways:

  • Hand-delivered (also known as personal service);
  • E-mailed to the last known e-mail address of the witness; or,
  • Certified mail to the witness's last known address.4

No matter how an SDT is served, it must be given to a witness in a timely manner. Here, a timely manner means in such time so as to give the witness a “reasonable time” to collect the materials and bring them to a judge.

girl not happy reading letter
Disobedience to a subpoena, or a refusal to be sworn or to testify as a witness, may be punished by the court or magistrate as a contempt

4. Ignoring or Refusing to Obey an SDT

An SDT is an official court document and a person receiving one should comply with it.

However, there are instances in which a witness ignores the subpoena or refuses to obey or comply with it.

In these situations, the attorney sending the SDT may ask the judge to issue an arrest warrant, which orders the sheriff to bring the witness before the court.

A judge can also punish a person's refusal of an SDT with contempt. According to California Penal Code 1331 PC:

Disobedience to a subpoena, or a refusal to be sworn or to testify as a witness, may be punished by the court or magistrate as a contempt.5

For the most part, contempt of court is a misdemeanor, punishable by:

  • Up to six months in county jail; and/or,
  • A maximum fine of $1,000.6

Please note that there are a few circumstances in which a person might be authorized to not comply with a subpoena duces tecum. These are when the information requested for is:

  • Privileged,
  • Lost, and/or,
  • A violation of the person's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
5. A Subpoena Ad Testificcontrast

contract to a subpoena duces tecum is the subpoena ad testificandum, which is typically just referred to as a “subpoena.” While an SDT requests documents or evidence from a party, a subpoena requests testimony.

This means a subpoena is a formal demand, by either a prosecutor or the defendant, for a person to testify in court.

Please note again that both a prosecutor and a defendant may request witnesses in a criminal case. Defendants do so under the Confrontation Clause of the U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment. Prosecutors also have the right to require witnesses to provide testimony in California criminal matters.

Have you received a subpoena duces tecum in California? Call us for help…

california subpoena legal experts attorneys
Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you or someone you know has received a subpoena or a subpoena duces tecum, and is being requested to testify or produce documents, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LAWFIRM.

Legal References:

  1. California Penal Code 1326(d) PC.

  2. California Penal Code 1326(b)-(c) PC. Note that if an attorney is seeking evidence, then the SDT is sometimes used as an alternative to a search warrant.

  3. California Penal Code 1326(c) PC.

  4. California Penal Code 1328 PC.

  5. California Penal Code 1331 PC.

  6. California Penal Code 19 PC.

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