Being asked or required to testify in a courtroom can be a nerve-wracking experience, even if you are not a party to the trial. If you have been summoned to testify as a witness in a civil case, you may wonder if it is possible to avoid it. There are many reasons why you may want to refuse the call; however, only a few circumstances would allow you to be exempt from testifying.
If you are a potential witness in a civil case, getting legal help is important. Consulting an experienced attorney will help you understand your role as a witness and guide you on handling your testimony.
Can I Be Forced by the Court to Testify?
Yes, a court may force you to testify. If you refuse, after being ordered, you may be held in contempt of court. Thus, it is not possible to ignore a witness subpoena.
Your subpoena will either be hand-delivered or served by some other means. The document will indicate the time and location and the party who called you to court. Upon receipt of the subpoena, you must legally oblige. An attorney can explain your obligations if you do not fully understand them.
What to Expect in Court
When you appear in court, you should bring the subpoena, documents, and other items requested in the subpoena. It may be a long time before the papers are returned to you, so make copies of those you think you will need.
Once the trial starts, the judge may ask you to wait outside the courtroom if he or she believes listening to the trial could affect your testimony. In some cases, you may have to wait alongside other witnesses. There will be marshals or court officers providing security. Still, if you are uncomfortable being near other witnesses or the accused, you should ask the lawyer who summoned you if you can wait in a separate room.
When You May Be Exempt From Testifying in a Civil Case
There are only a few reasons why someone may be excused from testifying in a court of law, including the following:
You are deemed incompetent to testify
Some witnesses cannot testify due to age, health conditions, or inability to recall events and details and accurately describe them to a jury. However, determining who is incompetent can be challenging. For instance, many cases throughout the United States have used children, elderly adults, or people with special needs as witnesses. In these cases, it is up to the jury to decide whether or not they will rely on the testimony provided by these individuals.
You are married to someone involved in the case
Communication between spouses is privileged, meaning that in most situations, the court cannot force you to testify against your spouse. However, you may waive the privilege and testify.
Another privilege applies to you prospective testimony
Suppose you are the priest, therapist, psychologist, or lawyer of one of the parties. In that case, you will be exempt from testifying about communications that you have had with that person with whom you had a professional relationship unless such person waives the applicable privilege. Like spouses, the court views these relationships as privileged as the communication between these professionals and their clients is typically confidential, so they are accorded special protection.
Testifying would result in self-incrimination
You have the right to invoke your Fifth Amendment right, which states that you have the right to not disclose information or evidence that could incriminate you . The Fifth Amendment establishes your right to remain silent and the right not to be a witness against yourself.
While the Fifth Amendment right applies to civil cases, there is a caveat. You can refuse to testify in civil cases that could lead to self-incrimination, but you must answer questions that will not incriminate you but could incriminate others.
You also cannot make blind claims about eventual prosecution and refuse to testify and cite the Fifth Amendment. The threat of prosecution, imprisonment, and other penalties must be clear. This distinction is for the court to decide, but you must consult your attorney before pleading the Fifth Amendment.
What Happens if I Refuse to Testify?
As previously mentioned, a witness cannot refuse to testify in response to a valid subpoena. Doing so may constitute civil contempt and can result in fines or a jail sentence. Therefore, you should immediately contact a lawyer upon receipt of a subpoena to learn about your legal rights and how to respond to the court’s order.
Why You Need to Hire a Lawyer
If you have been summoned as a witness in a civil case and are apprehensive about appearing in court, you should speak with an attorney.
Mr. Richard A. Serafini of the Serafini Law Office has been practicing law for 40 years. With vast experience in civil and criminal cases, you can be assured that your rights and interests will remain in good hands throughout a court proceeding. If you have safety concerns (e.g., fear of retaliation), Mr. Serafini may be able to help alleviate your concerns about safety.
Mr. Serafini will also help you respond appropriately to the subpoena while ensuring your private information is protected to the fullest extent possible.
Our law firm currently offers a range of legal services to the following cities and states: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, Florida, Pennsylvania, and New York.
Contact us at (754) 223-4718 for a free consultation.