Can You Compel A Witness To Testify In A Civil Case?

When you're involved in an auto accident, having witnesses that corroborate your version of events can help you obtain a desirable outcome in your court case. Unfortunately, there are some people who will refuse to show up in court no matter what you say. While you can compel someone to testify, there are certain circumstances where the court will excuse the person. Here's more information about this issue and some ideas for getting around it.

Times When Witnesses Can Refuse to Testify

If you request that a witness testify in your court case and that person refuses, you can compel the individual to appear in court by serving them with a subpoena. This is a court summons the person is required to answer or face civil and criminal penalties for failing to do so.

Once the person gets to court, though, he or she can request to be excused from testifying. The court will grant the person's request if the individual's reasoning falls into one of the following categories:

  • Self-incriminating testimony – The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects people's right to not incriminate themselves. This only applies to testimony that may result in the person being criminally charged. For instance, if a person admits he or she contributed to the accident by cutting the brake line on your vehicle, the individual could be charged with a crime. In this case, the witness could invoke his or her Fifth Amendment rights and be excused from answering questions.
  • The testimony is protected – Statements made to the witness's attorney, psychotherapist, or clergyman is protected by law. You cannot compel these people to divulge information made in confidence to the court. So though you may know the defendant confessed to causing the accident to his or her priest, for example, you cannot compel the priest to testify about what was said. Spouses also cannot be compelled to testify against each other and, with some exceptions, even statements made to ex-spouses are protected if the offense occurred while the witness and defendant were married.
  • The witness is not competent enough to testify – If the person's age, illness, or mental capacity will have (or has had) a negative impact on the individual's ability to accurately recall events, the person may be excused from testifying. For instance, a person with advanced Alzheimer's disease may be dismissed from the witness roster.
  • The person has diplomatic immunity – People with this political designation cannot be forced to provide testimony, though they can if they want.

Anyone who falls outside of these categories must answer the court summons and respond to the questions posed to them while in court. As noted previously, they can face civil and criminal penalties for refusing to do so such as being found in contempt of court and sentenced to jail time.

Convincing a Witness to Testify

If someone does fall into one of the protected classes, all is not lost. You may still be able to convince the person to testify on your behalf in your court case if you can address the individual's objections to doing so.

Many times witnesses will refuse to testify because they fear the potential repercussions of doing so. For instance, if a woman is being abused in her marriage, she may not want to testify for fear of being beaten. In these cases, the court may allow the person to testify anonymously depending on the circumstances.

Another common reason is the person may be afraid of incriminating him or herself. If this is the issue, you could have your attorney speak to the prosecution about making a deal where the person gets immunity from criminal charges for his or her testimony. Be aware, though, that the severity of the crime will dictate if the prosecution agrees or not.

A third issue is certain court process may conflict with the individual's religion. For instance, a Muslim woman may be required to remove her niqab veil to testify. The court may make an exception for or accommodate the witness, but this depends on the court and judge.

For more information about dealing with an uncooperative witness, connect with a car accident attorney like Carl L. Britt, Jr..