In the process server’s basement office the air is charged with excitement. Steve Knox starts jumping up and down, but his feet do not leave the floor. His face is getting redder. He’s sweating, grinning. His tie is flying in the air.
“One guy threw his tool box at me,” he sputters. “Another turkey tore the papers up, threw them down and jumped up and down on them, just like a little kid. Tomorrow I serve a psycho. He has some trained Doberman pinschers in his yard. He used to have a lion in the yard, too. At midnight, this stupid server snuck into the psycho’s compound and the bastard filled his belly with buckshot. The deputy sheriff came out and the lion supposedly attacked him, so he shot the lion.
“One server, who’s 65 and carries a pearl-handled revolver, got angry at a turkey and shot him in the foot. The turkey’s lawyer called up the server and said, ‘What do you mean, shooting my client?’ And the server said to the lawyer, ‘Did your client tell you about the butcher knife?’ ”
Steve Knox has quit bouncing and is pacing back and forth across the room. He stops at a phone and makes a call. His voice becomes smooth as honey.
“Hello, this is Steve Knox with S------— Insurance Company. Is Mr. Smith there? No? We’re trying to locate Mr. Smith for a claim. Do you know when he’ll be back? He witnessed an accident out on Mission Boulevard a few weeks ago and was kind enough at the time to say he’d be willing to sign a deposition. Well, lo and behold, he’s moved. Could you help us locate him? No, no, no. He’s not in any kind of trouble. We just need his help to settle this situation. Yes. That would be fine. My number is.......” The man he is seeking is being sued for $100,000.
Steve hangs up, looking for his keys.
“I just bought a 1959 Rambler. The other day a guy in a ’59 tow-truck chased me up Fifth Avenue. Quite a race. You should have been there that day. These things happen; it’s frustrating, crazy. I’ve chased turkeys clear to Oceanside.
One time I was staking out a house and I hid in a field. After six hours the turkey came out and waved at me. He’d seen me and let me stay out there till dark. But I don’t get mad. I don’t try to startle or embarrass anyone, and I don’t send any of my servers out after 10 p.m. They might end up lion bait for all I know. One process server in town lights a paper bag at the back door and yells, fire, fire, fire.’ Another guy throws firecrackers at the door to get them out. I don’t want to make my associates sound bad. They aren’t. They’re businessmen. Like me.”
He’s off to his Rambler. There are a hundred scams and a dozen turkeys waiting.
Steve Knox was living on 19-cent spaghetti dinners at the Pennant Bar when two attorney friends asked him to locate a tough customer. Mike Collins had been a Drake University graduate and an insurance adjuster before he decided he’d had enough of working for bureaucracies.
They and two dozen other process servers in San Diego inhabit a vocational borderland between adventure and boredom. Servers usually go about their business unnoticed. Most likely you’ve never read a novel or watched a television show about a process server. The lawyers who pay for their service barely acknowledge them. Usually, in fact, process servers deal directly with an attorney’s secretary.
When notifying someone of a legal action, the process server is a nonperson, a messenger boy. Though he is the brunt of plenty of rage, it is not really anger at him personally, but rage against somebody miles away, at the other end of the legal action. The process server catches the brick in the head, but it’s not really meant for him. Sometimes it is, though, when the chase has become a vendetta. Maybe that’s what makes Steve Knox get so red in the face and excited and joyful when he talks about the chase. That’s when he finally gets to be a real person, full of vengeance, cunning, and wit, waiting to be matched. Not only does Steve make more money when you or I try to avoid receiving legal papers from him, but we change from mere defendants (or turkeys) to real bandits. Suddenly Steve is no longer shuttling impersonally from the makers of paperwork to the receivers of paperwork. He is chasing you. He gets to know all about you: your daily habits, your neighbors, your cunning. Then the game is one on one. Everybody becomes real; the chase is on!
Private process servers, legal in only six states, are often used by attorneys in lieu of sheriffs and marshals to deliver subpoenas, notices of lawsuit action, divorce actions, and other civil matters. Private servers are used when there is a rush to deliver the papers, or simply when an attorney prefers their efficiency over the sometimes lackadaisical efforts of sheriffs and marshals. Private process servers get paid $3 for every document delivered and 70 cents per mile from the nearest courthouse to the location of the defendant. Recent legislation, though, is changing the fee structure around, and some process servers are not satisfied with the changes.
Servers like Knox and Collins are attractive to attorneys because they are private and hungry; they deliver faster and take on harder assignments (for which they sometimes charge extra fees) than the marshals and sheriffs. A good private process server can earn around $10,000 a year, and sometimes more. He works his own hours, but they are long, erratic hours, including weekends. Most of his day is spent in his car. Most of his deliveries are routine. Some defendants even thank him for the bad news he has just handed them.
To become a process server you have to be at least 18, not a party to the legal action, and registered with the county. The $100 registration fee covers you for two years. Plus, you must put up a $2000 performance bond (which actually costs only $35 or $40 every two years, paid to an underwriting insurance company). The bond protects the county from lawsuit if the server serves the wrong person or punches somebody. But most people don’t know they can sue the county in those instances, so they sue the servers directly.
Process servers’ tactics are shady, if not illegal, in many situations. One lawyer says that if attorneys ever gave it much thought, they’d know there were illegal means used to deliver papers. ‘There is sometimes an implicit authorization of these methods by attorneys. The less I know about how they are served, the better. I just want them served and I don’t care how.” He prefers private servers because he doesn’t trust the marshals and sheriffs. “The system supports the prosecution. In one case, I was the defense attorney. Two witnesses were subpoenaed — one for the defense and one for the prosecution. The marshals delivered the prosecution’s subpoena, but not mine.”
‘Turkeys are fair game,” Mike Collins says as he eases onto the freeway. “Our weapons are deceit, misrepresentation, and outright lying. All you have to do is make identification of the person. Most people have the misconception that I have to physically touch them with the papers. That’s not true. They don’t even have to tell me what their names are; but if I figure out their names, I just have to lay the papers down on the ground in front of them, or put them in the mailbox, or let the door slam on them, and announce that the papers have been served. Then I walk away, case closed.”
But then there are the tough bandits.
“I had a guy I was chasing, a big shot around town. A big avoider. He’s a famous businessman involved with professional sports in San Diego. Anyhow, Chase Manhattan was after him for a million-dollar note on a land situation. Nobody seemed able to serve him. One server had even gotten into his house on some pretense and was talking to him through the bedroom door and that bandit talked the server into leaving without serving!
“I’d staked out his house. I knew what he looked like because I’d gone down to the Union and found his photographs. I could never catch him. One day I heard on the radio that he was in town, so I rushed to his house and parked near the only entrance to his property. He whipped by me in his car, screeched to a halt in the driveway, ran into his house, and slammed the door. He left the car running and his bags in the car. His son came out later and got the keys out of the car and brought the bags in, and his kids kept coming out to spot me and then going back in to report. So I went back to the office, got a different car, and staked out his house again. Just as I drove up, he got in his car and started to drive away, spotting me on his way out the driveway. I chased him at 80 miles an hour clear to Tijuana, bumper to bumper.”
Mike, who usually wears a deadpan, is smiling now. His Datsun picks up a little speed as he tells his favorite story.
“I chased him into the downtown area of Tijuana. He was driving like a maniac, through the heavy traffic and pedestrians. Wheeling around, he shot across an intersection through a red light and turned up Revolucion Avenue going the wrong way. He disappeared into the heavy traffic, still going the wrong way, and I lost him. A Mexican cop stopped me for speeding, but let me go when I explained what I was doing. I went back to the border station and waited. I waited for two hours and he didn’t show up. I was afraid of him. He’d spooked me. The man was crazy.
“I let him go for a week. Then one morning I got up real early and snuck down by his garage, under some bushes. He came out wearing nothing but his shorts, tippy-toeing toward the newspaper, and he didn’t see me hiding in the bushes. When I came streaking out of the bushes it scared the hell out of him. I served him his papers while he stood there fuming in his underpants.”
Mike’s bill for that job was $300. Collection of the fee resulted mainly from his ability to press down hard on the accelerator and blend well into bushes. Other jobs demand other tactics.
Legally, servers can’t pose as police officers or government employees. But the phrase “I’m with the county” is used often; and other methods involve invasion of privacy.
“You never represent yourself as what you are,” Mike says. “You hide the papers in your back pocket, and when the turkey comes to the door, you call him by his first name. That immediately throws him off guard. You set up an immediate rapport with him, like you’re his long-lost friend. This accomplishes two things: it disconcerts him and when he answers yes or no, you usually have made a positive identification. Then you’re home free.”
Avoiders are more difficult to “skip-trace,” especially when the server has incomplete information.
The phone company keeps track of every citizen by phone number; names are secondary. Utility companies keep track of addresses; names, to them, are secondary. So if a server knows a name, but not an address, it is extremely helpful to have a friend in either the phone or utility company.
“Say all you have is a name and an address or phone number from six years ago. You can have your friend in the phone or power company trace the address or phone number forward and then you’ve got the turkey,” Mike says.
Mike knows one process server who pays rent every month for two women employed by phone and utility companies. In return, they provide him with a steady quantity of illegal, confidential information. The server later confirmed Mike’s story.
Bank accounts are confidential, but process servers cultivate good connections among bank employees.
One scam can be used for asset searches if a person has an account at any bank with more than one branch. “I could have my secretary call one branch and say, ‘I’m Judy Smith at the Ocean Beach branch, and Miss XYZ is here to make a withdrawal and doesn’t know her account number.’ Most banks are on the lookout for outsiders seeking confidential information. But there’s a big turnover in bank employees, and the new ones are usually naive.”
Though Mike avoids asset searches because they’re done on a percentage basis and are difficult, he says servers who become proficient at them can make an especially large income.
“If you know what you’re doing, you can collect 2% of a $100,000 judgment. That’s $2000 for a few well-placed phone calls to unsuspecting tellers. Banks are another good place to have friendly informants.” Likely, Mike says, the more money a defendant has, the more pains he will go to in order to hide it. Some millionaires manage to keep their bank accounts in other names. They own no property and are self-employed. These people can be successfully sued and then prove to be judgment-proof. And the more financially successful the person is, the more likely he’s going to be sued. Some physicians now are becoming very adept at hiding their money, and then dropping their malpractice insurance.
“La Jolla is the hardest area in town to serve. One woman there is an heiress to a big oil company. She leases a $200,000 home in La Jolla and leases a Cadillac Seville. She was living on $8000 a month in charge expenses, and was $16,000 in debt, just for makeup! I was serving her for a makeup company. The court wanted her to appear for an asset investigation. I spent hours trying to catch her, and she kept slipping away. Finally, I noticed that one of her garage doors was buckled and I could peer in and see her license plate. When I came back the next day her car was gone, so I drove through La Jolla for hours looking for it and finally found her, driving into a car wash. I served her the papers as she came out clean on the other end.”
Mike recently served an ex-policeman who was changing his residence to avoid being served. The only information Mike had was the phone number on the real estate sign, which turned out to belong to the ex-policeman.
“I went out to the real estate office, supposedly to talk with him about buying his house. When he realized what I was doing, he said he was going to break my neck. So I threw the papers at him, announced to him that he was served, then jumped in my car and roared away. He called my attorney and said he was going to sue me for littering.”
Some people think they can avoid a server if they get a post office box, but that doesn’t work because the server can usually convince the lawyer to put out what is called a subpoena deces tecum re deposition, which requires the postmaster to appear on a certain date to reveal information about the renter of a P.O. box. The postmaster quickly reveals the whereabouts of the box holder to the process server, and the subpoena is dropped;
A method that does work, according to Mike, is to get a P.O. box and then move without notifying the postmaster of your new address. ‘Then we’re up against a wall.”
Steve Knox is sweating. The little fan in the window well of his Rambler is no match for the Santa Ana, and Steve still has nine hours of work to do, which will take him until midnight.
‘The only place 1 won’t serve papers is in a bar where I drink. That’s sacred ground. I’ll some guy I’ve been looking for for weeks, but I’ll wait till he leaves the bar and I’ll follow him home.”
Steve says if he ever started thinking about the heartbreak that many of these subpoenas mean, he’d tend to delay serving them. A few months ago, Steve says, a server stamped “served” on the back of his carbon copies and then collected his fees, but never really served the papers.
“Look,” he declares, “I understand how these people feel. I’m getting sued myself by a former partner. I’ve spent $800 so far in legal fees just to defend myself. But I’d serve papers on my best friend; it’s just a job, and somebody has to do it. If I don’t do it, the legal process never gets rolling. And if I screw up and serve the papers to the wrong person, a lawyer can lose 30 to 60 days in a case. Now, what if that case involves child support or something like that? What’s the mother and the kid going to do in the meantime for food money?”
Steve says people don’t understand subpoenas. “They get excited, scared. They jump off the Coronado Bridge. But there are people in this town who get served every week and they just keep shining it on. Anybody who’s been around legal action very much isn’t scared of it.” But then he shakes his head. “A lawyer can make life miserable for you, though. He’ll see how high you can jump when he snaps his fingers.”
Violence shadows process servers every day. Most lawyers will warn a process server about defendants who are dangerous.
“I got a kick-out order once on a guy who was known for carrying a gun. Kick-out orders are the worst; that’s where you tell some sucker that he’s got to pack his bags and move out on his wife, who is divorcing him. This kind Qf order does not lead to pleasant conversations. When a six-foot-five Samoan opened the door, he reached down behind him for something, and I thought I was history. It wasn’t a gun. It was a lamp. He threw it across the living room. He very methodically tore the place apart, broke every piece of furniture in the house. I could hear the whole place coming apart. He was going from room to room, grabbing pieces of furniture and making smaller pieces of furniture out of them, and he was looking at me the whole time, over the wreckage. I backed away and kept going.”
Some defendants seem to have a sixth sense about process servers. Steve has been greeted at the door by a rifle, when there was no way for the defendant to know he was a server.
And then there is the case of the Phantom Tenant, who for eight months avoided service of an eviction notice. During that entire eight months he paid no rent and no process server could catch him. They just threw their hands up in frustration and walked away. Steve, who wanted the case badly, offered to guarantee service. If he failed, he wouldn’t charge a fee, but if he succeeded, he would receive $10 an hour.
“I had a description of this guy from his girlfriend. I staked out his house for hours and he didn’t show up. I put match sticks on all the doors and windows to see if he came or went. Every time 1 went to check, the matches were on the ground. I couldn’t figure out how he was doing it. Then I discovered that he was using a basement window. He had a view of the street for several blocks and had memorized every car on the block. The minute he would spot a strange car it would spook him and he would crawl out of his basement window, sprint eight blocks to his van, and take off. So I found a place I could stand and see the basement window and the route to the van, and stood out there all night in the rain. The next morning I was in the phone booth across the street, wet, angry, calling my office, and this guy comes out. He’d never seen me before, but the minute he passed me, he knew what I was about. He took off, jumped in his van, and raced away.”
Steve pounds his head with his fist and wonders about the kind of life the Phantom Tenant was living for eight months, a life like a repressed mole.
“Finally, I climbed up a 30-foot tree next to his house and sat there with the papers and waited. He showed up, looking up and down the street, sliding along beside the houses. I half fell, and half jumped from the tree and landed in front of him. Damn near killed myself. He leaped into his van and rolled up all the windows and locked the doors, thinking that would protect him. So I just put the papers under his window wiper and told him he was served. He was so bugged that he chased me in his van, but I ran like a son-of-a-gun, limping, soggy, and $300 richer.