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Subpoenaed to testify when I didn't really have to


Posted on April 5, 2010 at 11:45 AM

I received a very interesting education last week about King County's district court system and learned why you may not have to testify even if you're subpoenaed.

A couple of months ago, I was involved in a car accident in which a wheel came off a logging truck while it traveled down Interstate 5. The brake drum of the wheel hit the front driver's side wheel of my car. While the exterior of my car only had some scratches, the force of the impact did much more damage to the wheel and underneath the car. The repairs came to about $4,000. Thankfully, the insurance for the logging company took care of it and I was back on the road in a month.

I thought it was all over. My car was fixed. I had no bad feelings about the other driver, a perfectly nice guy who admitted what had happened. Then I was stunned to find out that I was being subpoenaed. The state was taking the other driver to court. Basically, he was being accused of not properly maintaining his vehicle. The state wanted me to testify.

Last Tuesday, I went to court. Mine was one of about 15 cases to be heard that afternoon, so I had to wait my turn. When the first case was called, the judge took about five minutes to explain something that I didn't expect. Due to budget cuts in the prosecutor's office, no prosecuting attorneys would be there to present the state's case.

So, who would be there to ask me questions? Nobody. And as it turns out, I didn't have to testify if I didn't want to. The judge said it's not her job to prosecute the case. Her job is simply to determine whether the state has proven its case. All she could ask me is if I wanted to make a statement and to ask me "Did anything unusual happen to you that day?" She said she could not ask me any follow-up questions.

I was stunned. I was also a little annoyed that I had leave work early in order to sit there for two hours waiting for my case to be called, knowing that I didn't have to testify if I didn't want to.

Ultimately, I decided to testify. The other driver fully agreed with my assessment of what happened. In his defense, he said he had only bought the truck four months before the accident. He stated that he had the truck inspected after the crash and learned that the problem that led to the wheel coming off was hidden and wouldn't have been detected during his daily maintenance check.

The judge surprised both of us by ruling that the state had not proved its case and she ruled in the other driver's favor. The other driver and I talked for a few minutes afterward, shook hands and that was the end of it.

I'm not saying you should ignore a subpoena to testify in district court. Just don't be surprised if you get there and the judge tells you that you don't have to say anything.