A summons is a legal document issued by a court addressed to a defendant in a legal proceeding. Typically, a summons will announce that the person to whom it is directed that a legal proceeding has been started against them, a file has been started in the court records and it announces a date by which the defendant(s) must either appear in court, or respond in writing to the court or the opposing party or parties. As such, the summons is the true descendant of the writ of the common law. In ancient Persian law if one failed to answer the summons of the King the punishment was death.
In most U.S. jurisdictions, the service of a summons is in most cases required for the court to have jurisdiction over the party who is being hauled into court involuntarily. The process by which a summons is served is called service of process. The form and content of service in the Federal system is governed by Rule 4 the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and the rules of many state courts are similar. The federal summons is usually issued by the Clerk of the Court, in many states the summons may be issued by an attorney, though some states use filing as the means to commence an action and the summons must be filed in those cases in order to be effective. Other jurisdictions may only require that the summons be filed after it is served on the defendants.
A citation or notice to appear is a type of summons prepared and served at the scene of the occurrence by a law enforcement official, compelling the appearance of a defendant before the local magistrate within a certain period of time to answer for a minor traffic infraction or misdemeanor or other summary offence. Failure to appear within the allotted period of time is a separate crime of failure to appear.
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