Federal Crimes Blog

18 U.S.C. § 401 - Ignoring a Federal Subpoena and Contempt of Court

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding | Jul 05, 2023

The legal authority of a federal court to hold an individual or a corporate entity in contempt of court is a vital tool designed to maintain order in the courtroom and ensure the administration of justice.

18 U.S.C.  § 401 - Ignoring a Federal Subpoena and Contempt of Court
Federal laws give judges wide discretion in exercising contempt of court powers.

Further, the threat of contempt of court helps a federal judge regulate aggressive or uncooperative defense lawyers, prosecutors, and witnesses.

Contempt of court is defined as any act calculated to embarrass, hinder, or obstruct a court in administering justice or to lessen the authority or dignity of a court.

Suppose federal courts could not rely on the threat of imposing contempt sanctions. In that case, judges would be almost powerless to ensure justice in their court and the legal proceedings.

Federal laws grant judges wide latitude in exercising contempt powers, which can result in significant penalties for anyone who has committed contempt of court.

However, despite such authority to hold individuals and business entities in contempt of court, it remains one of the least-regulated areas of judicial power in our criminal justice system.

However, ignoring a federal subpoena can result in harsh consequences. Suppose you were served with a subpoena. In that case, you need to understand what it means clearly.

A subpoena is a request to appear to present documents or give testimony. It's also a legal order that could result in criminal charges if you fail to appear when ordered. Let's review the federal laws further below.

What Does the Law Say?

The government's legal authority to impose penalties for ignoring a subpoena is found in 18 U.S.C. 401 and 402, called a "contempt of court."  Simply put, you could face fines and up to 6 months in jail if convicted.

Federal Subpoena
Ignoring a federal subpoena can result is fines and up to 6 months in jail if convicted.

18 U.S. Code 401 says, “A United States court shall have the power to punish by fine or imprisonment, or both, such contempt of its authority, for the misbehavior of any person, or its officers in their official transactions, to obstruct the administration of justice; and disobedience or resistance to its lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command.”

18 U.S. Code 402 says, “Any person or corporation willfully disobeying a lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command of any United States district court, by doing any act or thing, or forbidden, if done as to constitute also a criminal offense under the laws, shall be prosecuted for such contempt provided in section 3691 and shall be imprisoned or fined under this title, or both.”

18 U.S. Code Chapter 21 is the federal statute dealing with contempt, a form of obstruction of justice. 18 U.S. Code 403 defines the protection of privacy of child victims and child witnesses.

Suppose you fail to comply with an order of the court. In that case, the federal judge could hold you in contempt. Sometimes, contempt of court is filed as a federal crime.

What Are the Different Types of Contempt?

Ignoring a federal subpoena is just one of the different types of federal contempt of court. As noted, the federal laws defining this issue are found in the following:

  • 18 U.S.C. 401 gives the authority to the Federal District Courts to impose fines and jail time to individuals that show contempt for their power. This can occur by different types of misconduct, such as disobedience, resistance to its lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command."  This type of conduct is called “disobeying a subpoena.”
  • 18 U.S.C. 402 allows the criminal prosecution of an individual or corporation that willfully disobeys a lawful writ, process, or command from any United States District Court. The penalties listed in this statute are for ignoring or disobeying a court order, not other types of contempt of court.

Notably, a federal contempt of court for ignoring a subpoena could be prosecutor separately from the underlying criminal charges. This means facing other charges to face a federal contempt allegation is not always necessary. Further, you don't have to be the primary target of an investigation.

A subpoena is typically issued because the court believes you have helpful information about a case. Suppose you ignore the summons because you don't want to get involved.  In that case, the “ignoring” part is a crime in itself.

What Are the Penalties?

Suppose you willfully ignore a federal subpoena by failing to appear or providing the requested information.  In that case, a motion could be filed to compel you to appear and a move to charge you with criminal contempt.

If you are convicted, then 18 U.S.C. 402 gives the court the authority to impose fines of up to $1000 and jail time of up to six months.

What Are the Legal Defenses?

Suppose you are accused of violating a federal court order. In that case, our federal criminal defense lawyers can use various strategies to obtain the best possible outcome.

The primary element of the crime in contempt of court is to prove that you were willfully disobedient to the subpoena or court order.

Defenses for Ignoring a Federal Subpoena and Contempt of Court
Contact our defense lawyers for guidance.

Perhaps we can argue that your alleged behavior in ignoring the order was not willful.  Maybe we can say that you were unable to comply with the subpoena. Perhaps you were sick, or an accident prevented your appearance.

Suppose the subpoena was to produce documentation to the court.  Perhaps we can argue that you did not possess the requested documents or could not find them.

Perhaps we can argue that your failure to comply was due to circumstances beyond your control. Maybe we can argue that you were unaware of the subpoena. Perhaps you were on vacation or out of the country when the process attempted to serve you with the summons.

In other words, you can't be found in contempt of court if you were not legally served or adequately notified.

If you were accused of obstructing justice, you need to consult our federal defense lawyers to review the details and legal options. We know the legal requirements under these laws and know what factors must be proven for a conviction.

We provide legal representation for federal criminal matters throughout the United States. You can contact us for a free case evaluation by phone or contact form. The Hedding Law Firm is located in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding

What Makes Ronald Hedding Uniquely Qualified To Represent You? I've been practicing criminal defense for almost 30 years and have handled thousands of cases, including all types of state and federal sex crime cases. All consultations are discreet and confidential.

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