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If You Witness a Crime, Do You Have to Testify?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on
Witnesses to crimes are often nervous about being called upon to testify about what they have seen and heard, but in many instances, there's no other way to get that important information. Criminal defendants have the right to confront their accusers, and this right includes the ability to call witnesses into court to testify and be cross-examined. Even if a witness does not have to appear in court, he or she may be ordered to give a recorded deposition under oath. So when you witness a crime, do you always have to testify?

For Witnesses, No Duty to Report

It can often be a tough call for witnesses of crime to report what they've seen to the police. Thankfully, the law does not require any witness to a crime to call 911 or speak with the responding officer. If a witness wishes to remain anonymous, there is no duty to offer up personal identifying information unless an officer asks. And even then, you may only be forced to identify yourself to an officer in a handful of states.

If an Attorney/Detective Calls

At some point an attorney or detective may contact you via phone or email hoping that you'll speak with him or her about a case. You can, but you are not legally obligated to talk or meet with them unless you've received a subpoena.

If You're Subpoenaed for a Deposition

In criminal cases, it's uncommon for witnesses to give their testimony via deposition, but it may happen if a witness:
  • Lives too far away (i.e., out of state or out of the country);
  • Is hospitalized or dying; or
  • Is in prison/jail and cannot be transported for trial.
Witnesses may contact an attorney to quash (i.e., void) a subpoena, but otherwise, the witness must appear at the time and date specified to testify under oath. In criminal depositions, a judge or magistrate will be present as well as an attorney from the defense and prosecution. Witnesses must answer questions asked of them just like in a trial, and witnesses may be held in contempt of court for failing to do so.

If You're Subpoenaed for a Hearing/Trial

Witnesses may also be ordered via subpoena to appear in court for a hearing or a trial. Here, as in a criminal deposition, a witness must tell the truth and may only refuse if he or she "pleads the Fifth." If you're concerned about being forced to testify as a witness, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area. Related Resources:
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