How To Find Anyone: 5 Lessons From Serving People Papers
Right behind Comcast customer service and people who talk at the movies, process servers are some of the most hated people on the planet. They're the folks who hand you anything from divorce papers to eviction notices to court subpoenas. In essence, they deliver the worst possible news to people in desperate circumstances, thus really testing the phrase "Don't shoot the messenger." We spoke to three process servers working in different parts of America, and they told us ...
Process Servers Are Masters Of Disguise
Nobody's happy to meet a process server, which makes sense, as they rarely deliver cartoonishly huge checks or baskets full of puppies. But no awful legal issue can proceed until the process server says "I saw with my own eyeballs that this person was notified of said awful legal issue." So what do you do when people run from you like you're wearing overalls and they're a beautiful blonde in a horror movie?
Vincent found that wearing a suit, tie, and dark sunglasses gives him an air of legitimacy, while Angel finds that a brown shirt, brown pants, and a brown baseball cap lend credence to his not-inaccurate statement that he's got a delivery.
They should have known something was up when he actually knocked on the door
instead of immediately taping a missed delivery note on it.
Sometimes, though, it takes a stranger direction ... "In situations where I'm in a Hasidic neighborhood, I've worn a yarmulke with these glasses I have that have ringlets attached to it," Angel says, "because if you live in the neighborhood, you notice the Latin kid walking down the street." Although "legal official" is probably not the first thing they think, you still don't need the extra attention.
Angel once worked for a woman who needed to serve divorce papers to her husband, but hit a little snag when the man went on vacation -- with his mistress. The woman had reached the end of her already-frayed rope and, with Angel's assistance, hatched a plan.
"I told her to let him know she was getting a car service for him to pick him up at the airport," he says. "I got one of those costumes limo drivers wear, I got a big blank piece of paper, and I wrote his last name. Then I waited outside the terminal with the sign, and as soon as he came to me, I pulled out the papers, like, 'Here, Mr. Smith. I advise you not to go home, because your wife's not too happy with you on vacation with the mistress.' And he had the mistress right there next to him, mind you. I just turned around, threw the sign away, and kept moving."
His only regret was not packing a mic to drop as well.
Most of the time the job sounds downright awful, but sometimes it's like being a petty James Bond.
You Don't Have To Physically Accept The Papers
"People seem to think that legal documents are like the black spot from Treasure Island, and that you have to touch them for them to affect you," Vincent says. "If that were the case, then as soon as someone opened their door, I would whip the papers at them as hard as I could, like some kind of legal dodgeball. But no, once I've identified you, you're served. Whether you take the papers in hand or slam the door on me and I leave them on your porch, you're served. I had one guy who refused to take it from me, so I said, 'I'm leaving it on the porch. As long as I've identified you and there's no barrier between us, I can leave it.' He came out and, while threatening to call the police, he kicked it. By this guy's logic, he could touch it with his shoe, but he couldn't touch it with his hand."
Spoiler: The rules of soccer are not the same as the rules of the courtroom.
But in order to present the documents, you do have to physically find the person. Your first thought is their home, but there are problems with that. "Of course, if it says 'No trespassing, trespassers will be shot,' you take those things seriously, depending on the area that you're in," Crystal says. "You never cross those lawns, ever. If it's a foreclosure, you go ahead and post it as close to the property as you can get. If it's service papers, you tell your client you can't do it and they can send the sheriff. But there are places even the sheriff won't attempt."
There's no point in a legal service if it leads to your funeral service.
Even if you can get to the door, people will refuse to answer it, or try to claim after the fact that they abandoned the place and don't live there at all. That won't help, incidentally -- we'll explain why later -- but before Vincent gives up, he's got more tricks:
"You just put a piece of tape in a very visible location and then come back, and if someone has removed that tape, someone lives there," he says. "But some people are clever enough to not remove the tape, and you can get coy with it. You can put the tape over their keyhole, or put a small piece of clear tape in an unnoticeable part of the door connecting the door frame to the door so that it will break if they open it. It tells you someone's opening that door." At that point, the occupant is probably relieved that they're only being sued and not targeted by an OCD serial killer.
"I'll take pictures of things that should move regularly," he goes on, "the dishes strewn on the counter, makeup on a table in front of a mirror. I'll take a picture of the exact placement of it, then come back another day and check again. I'll read the power meter to see if it's changed. I'll even look for oil spots in the driveway -- those shouldn't move."
The moral, obviously, is to never wash the dishes ever again.
So basically, if Vincent finds you, you're screwed. Unless you employ the not-oft-successful Poltergeist defense.
Process Serving Is A Very Dangerous Job
Crystal has a pretty good reason to respect "no trespassing" signs: She's had guns pulled on her. She learned that "beware of dog" is no joke either after a farmer sent his beast after her. Vincent has never had a weapon waved at him, but he has been on the wrong end of a bad Goodfellas impression.
"I had to deliver in south Brooklyn, at a warehouse" he says. "And I had to get the receptionist to buzz me in, and the office was way in the back of the warehouse and upstairs. I go up and see my guy, the owner of the business, and I say, 'Hey! You're so-and-so, right?' in a friendly way, and he says, 'Yeah, I'm him' and I say, 'I have these papers for you.' And he says, 'You come in here like you're my friend? You come in here like you're my friend, and then maybe you get carried out.' I got out of there."
Process servers: funny like clowns, and almost as disliked.
To make matters worse, you're not exactly popular with the people you'd need to call for help. Vincent often delivers summons to police officers, because cops wind up in court all the time, and while he gets to do this serving through official channels, the work doesn't make him a popular guy around the station. "By and large, police officers don't like to not be the person in power," he says.
"Thanks. Next time discount Joe Pesci loses his cool, you can call 9-1-EatShit instead."
We're sending him the official trophy for the "Understatement of the Year" Award. Don't get too excited; it's only half an inch tall.
If A Process Server Gets The Wrong Address, You Get Screwed
The only reason this gamut of fake mustaches and firearms needs to be run is that most courts prefer that you serve people in person, but you totally don't have to. In fact, process servers used to get away with throwing papers in the trash and claiming they'd been served. "They'd make empty promises, take all these documents (to deliver), and then collect money," Vincent says. "Back then, it was just your word."
Five crying Native American chiefs and three Planeteers from Captain Planet died due the increased waste.
Now they're required to prove they made multiple good-faith attempts, including documenting their location using GPS. After that, though, all bets are off. Process servers have several options if a person legitimately cannot be located. Depending on what state you live in, they could hand it off to someone who probably knows you (this is called "substituted service.")
They can even drop it off on that porch you abandoned and let the wind serve you. "If the papers are served at a residence verified by the DMV, then you've been served," Vincent says. "Even if you don't live there, it still counts, because the only available records the government has of your address are there."
"A child you never met was probably born here 40 years ago. If you see him, give him these. If not, eh."
So what if you moved and you're understandably putting off the soul-sucking trip to the DMV? "The trial might go forward without you, you'll lose, and then you'll have police trying to find you," Vincent says. "It is possible, with a good-enough attorney, to argue that due diligence wasn't done and the service shouldn't count," but if you don't have the budget for a good lawyer, you are what we call, in the legal vernacular, 31 flavors of fucked.
Process Servers Witness A Lot Of Death
Broadly speaking, process servers don't encounter people who are living life like it's a Julia Roberts movie. "It just gives us the statistical likelihood to encounter dead people more often than the average person," Vincent says. "Like the cold open of a Law & Order episode where the body is found by someone, and it's always a different field, people from across all different walks of life. If it were more realistic, it would be nothing but process servers and social workers."
Random pizza dudes are more likely to walk into a porno plot than this one.
"I served some papers on a girl, and in the newspaper the next morning, it said she was found dead in the hotel room that I had served her papers in," Crystal says. "She had been naked on the bed. There was heroin, there was meth, there were needles, there were pipes -- I mean, the whole nine yards. The guy in the room when I got there to serve the papers was acting kind of funny, so of course I took note of everything. And I went on my merry way. Sunday morning, she was found dead with a bag tied over her head, and I thought, 'I might've seen the killer.'"
Crystal went to the police immediately, but they kind of blew her off at first. Five months later, the summoner had become the summoned. The police told Crystal that the guy remembered her dropping by, and desperately needed her to back up his story. Her testimony -- that she had seen him in the room, but on her way back, she noticed that his car was gone -- ended up saving a man's life.
And that is why you deliver your summons, instead of giving Oscar the Grouch new wallpaper choices.
"She had done it to herself," it turned out. "I served her custody, divorce, whatnot, from her doctor husband in Idaho Falls. They had six small children, she got addicted to drugs, and she wanted the children, so whatever that was in those papers apparently pushed her over the edge, because she asphyxiated herself."
"She was very nice," Crystal adds.
For more insider perspectives, check out 4 Scary Things You Only See Cutting People's Power As A Job and 7 Things You Only Find Out As A Lawyer To The Poor.
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