Managing Your Court Case

What If You Don't Want To Testify In An Upcoming Trial? What You Should Know

Most people are aware that they have a right to refuse to incriminate themselves, but what about a right to refuse to incriminate someone else? For the most part, refusing to testify in a court of law isn't really an option. If you've received a subpoena to testify in an upcoming criminal case, this is what you should know.

When you're the victim...

There's a lot of confusion about the crime victim's role in a criminal case. You may even hear someone say that the victim of an assault, for example, "pressed charges" against his or her attacker. However, that's not exactly what happens—the prosecutor, acting on behalf of society as a whole, has the ultimate say-so when it comes to who does and does not get prosecuted. A prosecutor might ask a victim his or her feelings about whether or not to pursue charges against someone, but the victim really doesn't have the ability to either press charges or drop them.

Because the court is interested in the welfare of society as a whole, the victim also doesn't have the ability to refuse to testify against the accused, even if he or she would rather not. Many victims of crime don't want to testify either because they are emotionally involved in some way with the accused or because they're afraid of reprisals for testifying (or both).

If you're the victim and you try to refuse to testify, the consequences can be serious. For example, a woman in Florida was jailed because she refused to show up to court and testify against the man who had attacked her. She claimed she was afraid to testify against the man, who was also the father of her child.

If you are a witness...

People who have the bad luck to simply witness a crime or who happen to have some kind of information that the prosecution wants to present to the court don't have it any easier than victims when it comes to their choices. You may still be faced with the uncomfortable prospect of sitting in the same room with the accused while you testify against him or her.

Witnesses often don't want to testify for a variety of reasons—some are afraid of reprisals and some are afraid that secret details about their own lives will come out. For example, if you were having an affair with someone that's accused of murdering his or her spouse, you might have to testify in court about the affair, even if your own spouse, family, and friends will find out. However, unless the secrets that you'd like to keep from the court implicate you in a crime, you still have to testify. 

When you still refuse...

Refusing to testify is considered 'contempt of court," a crime for which the penalties vary widely. Judges often have a lot of freedom when deciding how severe punishment should be for this particular crime, and they can be harsh. For example, a man in Illinois was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his refusal to testify in a case. If there's some reason that you don't want to testify in an upcoming case, talk to a criminal defense attorney before you make that decision. There are sometimes exceptions to the rules that can allow your attorney to try to argue that you should be permitted to refuse to testify. And, at the very least, you should find out what sort of penalty you're likely to face due to your refusal. Contact a criminal defense attorney for more information.