Does a Subpoena Have to Be Served in Person in California?

February 15, 2024

Serving a subpoena the right way is one of the key requirements for a subpoena to be considered valid. Here, proper service means you must deliver it to the right person and in a manner prescribed by law. In most jurisdictions, personal service is the most common type of service. But does that mean a subpoena must be served in person?

In California, a subpoena does not always have to be served in person, although personal service is the most common and preferred method. The California Code of Civil Procedure provides various rules for serving subpoenas, depending on the circumstances and the type of subpoena issued. However, the best way to ensure proper service is through a professional process server.

On-Call Legal is your go-to expert for all subpoena services in California and across the nation. With our same-day delivery, you can be sure your legal document gets to the recipient without delay. Schedule a free consultation with us to discuss your subpoena service and guide you throughout the process.

In this article, you’ll learn the approved methods of serving subpoenas in California, what makes a subpoena valid, and important things you need to know.

Approved Methods of Serving a Subpoena in California

To serve your subpoena appropriately in California, it’s essential to understand the different approved methods for service. That way, you can be sure your subpoena is valid while also complying with the process service rules in your jurisdiction. The methods include:

1. Personal Service

Personal Service

Also known as in-person service or personal delivery, personal service is the traditional and most reliable method in California. Here, a process server physically hands the subpoena to the recipient. The service must be made by someone who is not a party to the case and who is at least 18 years old. The person serving the subpoena must also identify themselves and explain the nature of the document.

Also, the subpoena must be served within a reasonable time before the court hearing or the date they’re required to produce documents. This allows the recipient enough time to prepare, appear to witness in the legal proceeding, or produce the required documents. The specific required timing may vary depending on the type of subpoena and the distance the recipient needs to travel.

The recipient has the opportunity to ask questions, seek clarification, or address any concerns immediately upon receiving the subpoena. With the opportunity for interaction, it’s easier for the subpoenaed person to understand the significance of the document and the obligations it requires.

2. Substituted Service

You can use substituted service when personal service isn’t working after several attempts. If you cannot reach the intended recipient directly, you can leave the subpoena with a responsible adult at their home or work. Then, you mail a copy to the same address.

There are stricter requirements for proving service of subpoena via substituted service. Such requirements include showing proof of attempts at direct service and ensuring the substituted service is likely to notify the person effectively.

3. Mail


Sending a subpoena through the mail typically requires using registered or certified mail to ensure there is proof of delivery. The sender must include a return receipt or another form of acknowledgment that the recipient signs upon receiving the document.

Mail service offers convenience for both the sender and the recipient, particularly when they are located far apart. However, there is a possibility that the subpoena might not be delivered or that the subpoenaed party might refuse to acknowledge its receipt. In such cases, the requesting party may need to use an alternative method of service to ensure the subpoena is legally served.

4. Electronic Service

Here, the sender emails or faxes the subpoena to the recipient. To be valid, the sender must obtain the consent of the recipient via a written notice. This agreement should clearly state which documents the recipient is willing to receive electronically.

Electronic service is particularly useful for parties in different locations due to its speed and cost efficiency. However, it’s important you ensure the security of the electronic delivery method and obtain verifiable confirmation of receipt.

Requirements for Serving a Subpoena in California

Requirements for Serving a Subpoena in California

There are specific requirements you must fulfill to ascertain that the subpoena service is legally valid. These requirements are designed to uphold the rights of all parties involved and to ensure that the person subpoenaed gets proper notice of the court order. Here’s a breakdown of the main requirements:

Issuance by Authorized Person: A subpoena must be issued by an authorized entity to be sure the subpoena has legal authority. Authorized people include a court clerk, a judge, or a licensed attorney actively involved in the legal case.

Proper Service Method: California law allows for several methods of serving a subpoena, including personal delivery, mail with a return receipt for proof of service, substituted service, and electronic service. Any method you choose must comply with the California Code of Civil Procedure.

Reasonable Time: The party receiving the subpoena must be given enough time to comply with the subpoena. This means they should receive the subpoena and accept service early before the required date of appearance or document production. Such early service allows them adequate time to prepare or to object to the subpoena if necessary.

Accurate and Detailed Information: The subpoena must clearly identify the court case and provide detailed instructions on what is required of the recipient. It must specify whether it’s appearing in court (witness subpoena), a deposition (deposition subpoena), or producing documents (subpoena duces tecum). It should also specify the date, time, and location for compliance.

Payment of Witness Fees: If the subpoena requires an individual’s personal appearance in court or at a deposition, California law requires the payment of a witness fee and mileage (if applicable) at the time of service. This is to compensate for the time and expenses incurred by the individual in complying with the subpoena.

Compliance with Privacy Laws and Protection of Sensitive Information: When requesting the production of documents or personal information, the subpoena must comply with privacy laws and ensure the protection of sensitive information. This includes adhering to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for medical records and other applicable privacy legislation. It’s recommended to confirm the privacy laws guiding business records and other legal documents in your jurisdiction.

Allowing for Objections: The subpoenaed party has the right to object to the subpoena if they believe they have a legally valid reason. Such reasons may include when the subpoena is overly broad, unduly burdensome, or infringes on their rights or privileges. The legal process must provide an avenue for these objections to be heard and resolved.

Consequences of Improper Service of Subpoena

Consequences of Improper Service of Subpoena

Serving a subpoena the wrong way can result in several significant consequences that may affect the party issuing the subpoena, the intended recipient, and the court hearing in general. The potential consequences include:

Invalidation of the Subpoena

If a subpoena is not properly served according to the legal requirements in California, it may be considered invalid. This means the court or administrative body may not enforce it. So, the requesting party may not get the witness or documents they need for their legal claims.

Delay in Legal Proceedings

Improper service can lead to delays in the legal process. The party serving the subpoena may need to re-serve it correctly, which can postpone hearings, trials, or other critical steps in a case.

Potential for Sanctions

If the improper service is deemed to be a result of negligence or an attempt to bypass legal procedures, the issuing party could face sanctions or penalties from the court. Sanctions can include fines, the payment of the opposing party’s legal fees, or other penalties deemed appropriate by the court.

Loss of Critical Evidence

You may lose access to very important evidence if the subpoena duces tecum issued is invalidated. Likewise, improper service may also cost you important witness testimonies if the recipient does not accept your subpoena. These may affect the progress of your claims if the evidence is critical to the case.

Challenge or Quashing the Subpoena

The recipient of an improperly served subpoena has grounds to challenge or move to quash (nullify) the subpoena. This can result in additional legal proceedings to resolve the dispute, further delaying the case.

Impact on Legal Rights

Improper service can impact the legal rights of the recipient, particularly if it leads to inadequate notice or the inability to prepare for or respond to the subpoena. This can raise issues of fairness and due process, potentially leading to appeals or other legal remedies.

Compromised Privacy and Security

In cases where personal or sensitive information is involved, improper service can lead to privacy breaches or the unauthorized disclosure of information, especially if the subpoena is served to the wrong person or entity.

Types of Subpoenas

Types of Subpoenas

1. Subpoena for Witness 

This is the most common type, that compels an individual to appear in court and provide verbal testimony on a specific date and time. This is important in civil and criminal cases, where firsthand accounts from witnesses can impact the outcome.

2. Subpoena Duces Tecum

This type goes beyond verbal testimony. It demands the production of physical evidence like documents, recordings, or objects relevant to the case. It’s often used in conjunction with a subpoena for a witness, providing additional context and support for their testimony.

3. Civil Subpoenas

The California Code of Civil Procedure (CCP) governs the civil subpoena. They are mostly used in civil cases which typically involve disputes between private parties or organizations. These subpoenas compel individuals to provide testimony or produce evidence relevant to the matter at hand, such as in personal injury cases, contract disputes, or family law matters

4. Criminal Subpoenas

The law enforcement or prosecutors issue this subpoena during criminal investigations and prosecutions. This aims to secure the presence of witnesses or the production of evidence to support the prosecution’s case against the accused.

5. Administrative Subpoenas

Government agencies issue this type of subpoena during investigations or hearings related to their regulatory functions. This helps to gather information relevant to their inquiries, like licensing boards investigating misconduct or environmental agencies probing environmental violations.

Differences Between Civil, Criminal, and Administrative Subpoenas

Differences Between Civil, Criminal, and Administrative Subpoenas

All subpoenas aim at compelling a person to appear in court but not all subpoenas serve the same purpose. Each type serves a unique purpose, operates within specific scopes, and requires certain procedures.

1. Purpose

Based on what the subpoenas entail:

Civil Subpoenas: Civil subpoenas aim to gather evidence relevant to the case, typically encompassing documents, witnesses, and sometimes tangible objects.

Criminal Subpoenas: In criminal investigations and prosecutions, law enforcement and prosecutors utilize these to obtain evidence necessary to support their case against the accused. This might include witness testimony, physical evidence, and even electronic data.

Administrative Subpoenas: This type of subpoenas aims to gather information relevant to their investigations or regulatory functions. For instance, a licensing board might use one to obtain financial records from a business under investigation.

2. Scope

Civil Subpoenas: Generally, these have a broader scope than criminal ones. Parties in a civil lawsuit can request a wider range of documents and witness testimonies, as long as they are relevant and non-privileged. But, the court can limit the scope to prevent undue burden or “fishing expeditions.”

Criminal Subpoenas: Here, the scope is narrower and tightly focused on evidence directly related to the criminal charges. Prosecutors must demonstrate the requested information is relevant and necessary for their case.

Administrative Subpoenas: The scope varies depending on the agency and its authority. However, they are generally limited to information directly relevant to the specific investigation or regulatory function.

3. Issuing Authority

Civil Subpoenas: Judges or court officials authorized by the court can issue these subpoenas upon request from a party in the lawsuit.

Criminal Subpoenas: Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have the authority to issue these subpoenas during their investigations and prosecutions.

Administrative Subpoenas: Government agencies with specific investigative or regulatory powers can issue these subpoenas by their legal mandates.

4. Protective Measures

Despite the legal weight of a subpoena, recipients have avenues for protection against undue burden or privacy violations.

Motion to Quash: If you believe a subpoena is too broad, irrelevant, or legally flawed, you can file a motion to quash. 

Protective Orders: Courts have the power to limit the reach of a subpoena or control how the information obtained from it is used. This is to protect privacy or confidential business interests.

Attorney Consultation: Seeking legal advice will help you understand the specific rights and options available in response to a subpoena.

Need to Subpoena Someone?

Proper service of subpoena in California does not have to be a hassle. All you need to do is reach out to our experienced process server at On-Call Legal and we’ll help you handle the process. With our dedicated team and thorough understanding of subpoena processes, you can be sure your process service is compliant and valid.

Book a free Subpoena Serving Consultation with us today to get started.

Frequently Asked Questions about Subpoenas

Frequently Asked Questions about Subpoenas

1. Do I Need a Lawyer to Serve a Subpoena in California?

While you technically don’t need a lawyer to serve a subpoena, it’s highly recommended. Improper service can render the subpoena invalid, causing delays, challenges, and sanctions. An attorney can ensure everything will go according to legal requirements, saving you time, money, and headaches.

2. How Much Time Do I Have to Serve a Subpoena Before the Court Date?

There’s no single answer as it depends on various factors like the type of subpoena and the distance involved. However, it’s important to give the recipient enough time to prepare and travel if required. Consult with an attorney or check relevant court rules for specific timelines in your case.

3. What Happens If a Subpoena Is Not Served Properly?

Improper service can have several consequences including Invalid subpoena, Motion to quash, Loss of evidence, and Sanctions.

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