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A subpoena is a court-issued command for an individual or corporate representative to appear before the court or to provide specific evidence. Failure to comply with a subpoena without good reason can result in contempt-of-court charges. Legislation such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations stipulate how information must be handled and how long it must be retained.

Subpoenas are frequently issued for stored or archived data such as e-mail or instant messaging correspondence. For example, if a corporate executive is accused of insider trading, a subpoena may demand all e-mail messages sent and received during a specific time frame. If the executive can not produce these records, the court may issue a subpoena to any Internet Service Provider ( ISP ) handling his Internet access account(s). Subpoenas may also be directed at people with whom the accused individual regularly corresponds.

E-mail messages should be considered business records and stored accordingly. Meticulous e-mail archiving (also called e-mail retention), like the retention of tax records, has become an essential part of the record-keeping routine for all businesses.

The word subpoena derives from the Latin phrase sub poena, meaning under penalty.

This was last updated in January 2008

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