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What is the difference between a subpoena and a search warrant?

While a subpoena and a search warrant are different documents that seek different kinds of information, neither should be ignored or taken lightly. 

A subpoena is a legal document that a court or an attorney issues to a person or business. It requests specific information, an appearance in court or for a deposition, or certain documents or records related to an active court case.

A search warrant is a legal document issued by a court that permits the police or another law enforcement agency to search physical spaces, electronic devices, and documents. A search warrant is used in criminal cases to search for evidence of a crime.

What can I do if I receive a search warrant?

If you receive a search warrant, don’t panic. Ask to see and read the actual warrant, and call your lawyer to help protect your rights and those of your employees and customers. Warrants do specify when, where, and what may be searched.

Law enforcement generally does not provide advance notice of a search warrant. If police appear without warning and you cannot immediately call your lawyer, or do not have a lawyer to turn to, contact one as soon as you can.

It may be that you are not being searched because you did something wrong. Instead, law enforcement might want information about an employee or customer, or a crime that may have been committed on your premises.

What if I cannot reach my lawyer?

Although it may seem overwhelming, you have the right to review the warrant before anyone searches your property or documents. Take the time to review what they are looking for. In most cases, search warrants are only effective for a specific location and amount of time, so check the address and time to ensure that the warrant is at least correct. 

Do not leave your premises while law enforcement searches it. You should stay to ensure that they are not overstepping the bounds of their warrant. If something seems off, say something. For example, if the warrant authorizes the search for a stolen guitar, officers cannot search a person’s small handbag. Be cooperative and respectful with people who are doing their job, just like you. If officers are rude or things get heated with staff, try to de-escalate the situation. 

To help your lawyer, or yourself, later on, request a copy of the warrant if one is not provided. It can be helpful to gather information about who is conducting the search, including any officers or third-parties involved. You may ask for business cards, or other documentation.

Employees and customers have rights during a search. In most situations, they have no obligation to provide interviews or statements during searches, and whether their personal belongings can be searched may depend on what is allowed by the search warrant. Unless officers detain individuals on your premises, or the warrant requires anyone present to remain and be searched, employees and customers are generally free to leave.

What can I ask about a warrant or subpoena?

Before asking any questions, carefully read through the document. It is important to identify what it asks you to do and the deadline for when it must be done.

Is it a document, deposition, or trial subpoena?

A subpoena can demand your appearance at a deposition or trial to testify, or it may simply demand that you provide documents to an attorney or person involved in a court case.

A deposition is a question-and-answer session with an attorney related to a court case. A deposition is not in front of a judge or jury, however, it usually involves a licensed court reporter and attorneys, and, sometimes, the parties to the case. A subpoena might also demand you bring certain documents with you, or provide them to the person issuing the subpoena in advance. In some cases, only the documents will be requested.

A trial subpoena requires your appearance at a trial to be questioned by an attorney in front of a judge or jury. A trial subpoena can also demand that you bring documents with you to court, or provide those documents to the court or attorney before the day scheduled for you to testify in court. 

When you are subpoenaed and must appear at a deposition or in court, you may be able to request a witness fee and mileage for your attendance.

What can be searched as part of the search warrant?

Search warrants do not always involve a physical search of your entire business. Instead, they may only allow certain parts of a business to be searched, or seek certain records you can produce on your own time, or even simply provide electronic access to. Read the warrant carefully to determine who, what, and where law enforcement is authorized to search.

Is there a criminal investigation connected to my business?

Your rights and obligations are very different if you are a subject of a criminal investigation or if you simply have information about someone else. Criminal cases are different from civil investigations. Try to understand why you are receiving a subpoena or search warrant before responding.

How long do I have to respond?

Many subpoenas require a response by a certain time and at a certain place. Review your deadlines carefully, so you do not miss the deadline. Failing to respond can result in legal consequences. Often, if you need more time or cannot attend at the requested time and date, you may be able to contact whoever issued the document to request more time or to reschedule.

Do I have to protect clients or employees when served a search warrant or subpoena?

In general, you do not have any duty to withhold information in response to a search warrant or subpoena. Even an Employee Non Disclosure Agreement may not prevent you disclosing information in response to a legal or court ordered request. There may be certain actions you can take, however, to protect the disclosure of private information.

Many companies choose to have privacy policies or agreements with their employees and customers. Some industries or states might have specific privacy requirements that apply. 

An attorney has a lot of tools to assist you with understanding the process and to provide legal advice on how to respond. Further, an attorney may be able to work directly with law enforcement or government agents on your behalf, so you do not have to deal with their inquiries. Allowing a lawyer to represent your business for these sorts of matters can sometimes prevent potential damage, losses, and disruption to your business.

If you want to know more about your rights and responsibilities when it comes to subpoenas or search warrants, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney for affordable legal advice. If you happen to need tax help, Rocket Lawyer can now match you with a tax pro for affordable and convenient tax filing services. Don't do your taxes™ – Let us do them for you.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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