We have covered a good bit of ground in the first four articles covering the basics of process serving. Now it is time to hit the road and serve the papers. It is time to get the job done, wow the client and try to maximize profit by limiting attempts at service.
Much of the work done up to this point as covered in previous articles was to help increase the chances that the papers can be served properly on the first attempt. We have researched our defendant, the provided address and hopefully have an idea of the best time of day to attempt service.
Before you ever knock on someone’s door you need to become knowledgeable of the laws concerning service of process. By knowing the law and courts’ interpretations of the law, you become empowered with confidence that the judgment calls and decisions you make in the field are proper and can be defended in court, if necessary. This depth of knowledge is what separates rookie servers from the seasoned professionals.
Knowledge is Power
One common misconception I encounter practically every day is that a defendant must accept, take or touch the court papers to be legally served. Another is that a defendant must identify themselves or acknowledge the process server in some way to be legally served. These beliefs are both completely faulty, at least in California.
This perception of how things work is what leads defendants to hide in their own homes, covering windows and living in near silence and secrecy, all to make a process server think they are not home if one comes knocking.
Stated as simply as I can, the reality is that if you are home and I can identify that you are home you are going to be legally served. If I watch my defendant park her car, walk into the house and shut the door, then I knock seconds later and get no response, I am going to serve those papers and I believe any court in the State would uphold the service. California state law governing service of process and case law interpreting it is quite concise and leaves little grey area, in my educated opinion (I have a J.D. but I am not a licensed attorney and I do not provide legal advice).
The basic elements of valid personal service can be summarized as 1) Identify the person to be served; 2) Within normal speaking distance, announce the general nature of the papers to the person being served; 3) Leave the papers in a conspicuous place.
In the case of watching a defendant enter her home then not answer the door, the elements can be met in this way: I have a photo of the defendant and positively identify her as the woman who parked the car and entered the house. Seconds later, I knock on the door but receive no response. I know she is inside and courts have held that “normal speaking distance” can be through a closed front door, from a patio to a second floor balcony and more. I announce through the closed door, “Ma’am, I know you are inside, I just watched you enter the house. You are being sued by So-and-So and I’ve been hired to serve the court papers to you. If you do not want to open the door and take them, I will leave them here on your Welcome mat (or in the mailbox, or stuck in the doorjamb, etc.). You are served.”
Leaving the papers in a conspicuous place in this manner completes the service. This will be upheld in court as the same “personal service” as if the defendant voluntarily accepted the papers.
Knowing these laws and knowing what constitutes valid service will allow you to “pull the trigger” when an opportunity arises and will save you time and money trying to put yourself in a situation where the evasive defendant is caught in the open and takes the papers. You may only get one shot to serve the defendant and you don’t want to blow it. You also need to know these details in order to educate your client and explain how it is you accomplished legal, binding service.
Learn the Craft
Many of the jobs you get will be easy, routine serves to people not trying to evade service. If you are lucky, most of your jobs will be boring and unmemorable. Those are the profitable bread-and-butter jobs every server needs to offset those jobs that turn into a disaster and require much time and expense to complete.
Many times you will simply ring someone’s doorbell, they will answer, you ask if it is the person you are looking to serve, they will say that it is and they will take the papers. Sometimes polite defendants may ask questions about the court process, what the case is about, how it all works, etc. I try to always approach a serve as polite, discreet and respectful as possible. People being served are not (usually) bad people, they are just parties to a court action that I have no stake or interest in. If I can provide helpful information to a person I just served, I certainly will.
Once you have these basics under your belt the best thing is to gain experience actually serving papers. Every serve you complete and every new situation you encounter will provide some tidbit of knowledge you can use for the next serve. I’ve been doing this for over 12 years and I still run into new and unique situations that I learn from.
You will make mistakes as a new process server. You will miss opportunities to serve the case and you will incur unneeded expense that eats up your profit on some jobs. By getting out there and knocking on doors you will get a little better each time and you will eventually feel that you have the upper hand in any situation you come across while serving.
If you have not checked out my first published book, How to Make Money as a Process Server – Book One, you can grab a copy for free this weekend (July 25-27). Book Two is on the way and will be full of entertaining and educational service stories from the field. Head over to my site for the book series, Make Money as a Process Server, sign up for my mailing list and be sure to stay in the loop as this awesome series of books comes together!