A few years back, we were reading one of Sean Chercover’s novels featuring the P.I. Ray Dudgeon, where Dudgeon recalls a violent encounter with a process server. It’s been a while since we read the book, so we can’t exactly recall the scene, but at the time we were both hit with how true it is that a task such as serving legal papers — which seems so basic, so benign — can also be deadly.
Guns, Gams and Gumshoes’s Colleen Collins wrote about some of the dangerous aspects of process services in her nonfiction book Secrets of a Real-Life Female Private Eye. Below is an excerpt.
The Violent Side of Process Services
A few years ago in my state, a local P.I. was murdered in the course of serving legal papers for a divorce. Police have long known that domestic violence cases can be the most threatening — passions are heated, and too often drugs and alcohol are involved. I once served divorce papers to a husband, accused of regularly beating his wife who managed to escape the house and file for divorce. Minutes after I drove away, he fatally shot himself. I didn’t know this until a week later when the lawyer, on whose behalf I served the papers, informed me. How did I feel? Horribly sad that a person took his life. Even sadder for the children of the marriage.
I wish I could say that was the extent of violent episodes while my partner and I served legal papers, but it’s not. Once a public government official got so furious, she shoved the papers back into my partner’s face. That official was reassigned to a basement office where she has little contact with the public. Another time, a woman pounded her fists on my partner’s back as he walked away after serving her papers, and another time two guys tried to run my partner and I over with their truck after we served them papers.
And then there was the local process server who was attacked by a professional businessman who was furious at being served legal papers. The process server had to spray the businessman with pepper spray to halt the attack, after which the process server ran away to safety. He then sold his process service business, saying “No job is worth losing your life over.”
In this section are several stories of violent episodes I experienced while serving legal papers. But first, let’s take a moment and talk about some of the myths of process service. First, that the server is stoned like Seth Rogen in the film Pineapple Express. Second, the psychology of the people who have been working hard, and sometimes rather creatively, to avoid being served legal papers.
We’ll start with the stoner-process server, who in reality would never make it in the business.
Pineapple Express: Dude, It’s Fiction, Not Reality
This movie featured a stoned process server — make that a very stoned process server — who runs into all kinds trouble while serving papers, including a run-in with a nasty mob character. Funny as a story, but not realistic in real life.
Process servers need to be clear-headed and educated about the statutes that affect the service. No way he or she could roll up to a house or business, their car and lungs filled with ganja smoke, and expect to fulfill a proper service of legal papers. Here’s some reasons why:
- The process server might be delivering papers to someone who’s actively avoiding service, so it is critical that the server is clear-headed and reading the signs to the person’s whereabouts.
- Sometimes the person being served pretends they’re not that person, so the process server must be relying on research to accurately, and immediately, identify that person’s identity.
- A business might think it’s protecting an employee by pretending the employee doesn’t work there, or that a manager isn’t legally required to accept the service on behalf of that employee, or someone at the business falsely recites some non-existing legality that forbids the process service from completing the service (we’ve even had lawyers do this — and guess what, they were making it up). A process server must again rely on her research and know the laws affecting that type of service.
I’ve had all of the above scenarios occur while serving legal papers, which means it’s critical for me to be knowledgeable about state statutes regarding process service while quickly assimilating the signals and clues to the person’s identity and location.
Now let’s look at something less funny than a stoner trying to serve legal papers: Subjects turning violent when served legal papers.
When Subjects Go Ballistic
Confronting violent situations when serving legal papers isn’t always a random, out-of-the blue event. Meaning, when the subject gets violent about being served legal papers, this rage has often been building over the days, weeks, months that they’ve been hiding, or perhaps attempting to stop the process, or maybe trying to outwit the process server. All of which means the subject has grown increasingly anxious and angry.
Maybe they’re no longer driving their own car, or they’re crawling in and out of a back window every day to go to work instead of walking out their front door, or they’re no longer answering their phone or turning on certain lights at night in their home so it appears no one is home. We knew a couple who left their and moved several hundred miles away, where they rented a guest house on someone else’s property.
The stress of hiding and avoiding service can affect spouses, significant others, children, bosses, coworkers, friends, even neighbors who are drawn into this web of deceit and avoidance.
In a recent article in the online magazine Psychology Today, Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist, states that violent behaviors can be triggered by frustration, anger or perceived humiliation. Those are certainly responses I’ve witnessed in the course of serving legal papers. Firestone states that often when people turn violent, they are attempting to retaliate, intimidate or exert control — motivations I’ve witnessed when violence erupts in the course of a service.
The following accounts describe violent incidences I’ve encountered or observed in the course of serving legal papers.
Stopping a Pit Bull Attack
Three years ago, I accompanied my business partner as he served legal papers to a residence. I stayed in our vehicle so I could snap a photo of his serving the papers (having a photo of the actual service prevents people from claiming they were never served.) it’s good for people to see their actions are being monitored, and I can also quickly call nine-one-one if there’s a problem.
This particular morning, we identified one of the vehicles in the driveway as belonging to a twenty-one-year-old who lived with her parents, which indicated she was at home. In our research, we knew the ages of her parents and their general physical description.
I watched my partner knock on the screen door of the home (the front door was wide open). When a man fitting the description of the father came to the screen door, my partner first asked for so-and-so (the person to whom we were serving papers).
The man didn’t answer. Instead he opened the screen door and yelled for his dog. A barking pit bull appeared. My partner thought quickly and jammed his foot against the screen door, blocking the dog’s exit.
Mind you, my partner loves dogs. He’s trained German Shepherds as show dogs in the past. We have two Rottweilers (but we never send them to an open door to greet strangers. Although they’re well-behaved dogs, we’re aware their looks alone might scare people, so we put them into a separate room if strangers are coming to the house).
Because it is legal to serve adult members of a household where the subject of a process service resides, my partner announced he was serving papers to the father for [subject’s name], placed the papers on the porch and left. Perhaps the man saw someone was in the car documenting his every move, so he had the good sense to not attempt further retaliation via his dog.
Several years back, in an episode of the former TV series Dog the Bounty Hunter, a person released an aggressive pit bull (dog on “Dog”), and Dog shot some kind of pellet (not ammunition) at the dog to scare it away.
We have a process server acquaintance who says he always carries a bag of doggie treats to win over dogs. If that fails, he uses pepper spray.
-End of Excerpt-