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In any court proceeding, witness testimony can be an important source of evidence.
It follows, then, that courts take calling witnesses pretty seriously. How seriously? Seriously enough that those who refuse to testify can, in some situations, be held in contempt of court, which may result in penalties including fines and even jail time.
What are the rules for testifying in court and how can you keep yourself from running afoul of them?
Fifth Amendment Right against Self-Incrimination
One person who can generally never be forced to testify in court is a criminal defendant. Under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." This means that a defendant that is charged with a crime can choose whether or not to testify in court. However, if the defendant does choose to testify, he generally cannot choose which questions to answer.
The Fifth Amendment also extends to other witnesses in criminal and civil proceedings; any time a witness' testimony might incriminate him or her in a crime, the witness can choose not to testify by invoking their Fifth Amendment rights. Unlike a criminal defendant, however, these witnesses can generally invoke their Fifth Amendment rights selectively during their testimony.
Being Subpoenaed to Testify
However, witnesses other than criminal defendants may also be compelled to testify in the form of a subpoena issued by a court. A subpoena may request a person to testify, provide documents, or bring other evidence to a court. If a person fails to obey the subpoena, they can be held in contempt and subject to fines, jail, or both.
There are several other types of witness who may be excused from testifying, even if they are subpoenaed:
Learn more about what happens in the courtroom and get some general tips for navigating a court proceeding at FindLaw's Learn About the Law section on Going to Court.