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Process servers are the legal system’s postal carriers

A slender woman faced a glowering man who stood at the front of his house, his hostility flaring because of a delivery she was trying to make.

Chris Telega was there to serve legal papers.

First, the man denied he was the person named on the papers, then he demanded Telega show him her identification. When she stepped toward her car to fetch her ID, he shoved her. Telega whipped out a can of pepper spray and pointed it at him.

“Back off!” she barked.

He complied.

A neighbor yelled to the man, calling him by the name on the documents. Telega tossed the papers at his feet and told him he was served.

For process servers, confrontations like this are as inevitable as a Florida thunderstorm.

Process servers are the legal system’s postal carriers. They must fight the elements, find poorly marked addresses and elude aggressive dogs.

But, unlike the mailman, no one is ever happy to see them. They are welcomed as warmly as health inspectors and IRS agents.

They go onto properties of potentially volatile people, sometimes tooling down long driveways at night in remote rural areas that reek of danger.

The private servers – those who don’t work for the Sheriff’s Office – deliver civil papers that require no law enforcement. Those include subpoenas, summons to court, notices for divorce and child custody suits.

It’s the kind of job with long stretches of uneventful routine interspersed with wrathful encounters.

“I’ve had people chase me to the car,” said Kevin Whitton, 45, who works with Telega at his family’s process-serving business. “You never know what’s going to happen when that door opens.”

BUT SOMEBODY’S GOT TO DO IT

The Ormond Beach office where Whitton and Telega, 56, begin their day is quiet, and the company’s name, Executive Southern Professional Services, gives no real hint of what they do.

Executive Southern is one of a handful of private processing-serving agencies in the area.

The pay is modest by any scale – $8 to $12 per legal document, Telega said. “Florida is very low,” she said. “We are one of the lowest ones, as far as what we make on our papers.”

One of the biggest hassles is going back to the same address again and again to deliver the same set of papers if someone is not home or, worse, is ducking service, she said. If the address if valid, the servers are paid the same, whether they make one trip or 20.

And John Wayne tactics are out.

Servers should never climb over a closed gate in a driveway, nor should they argue with recipients, said Al Metcalf, 60, who also works at Executive Southern. They are allowed to defend themselves, however. Assaulting a process server is a felony, and people will rarely go that far, although some will browbeat the messenger, he said.

One woman, after being served, ran out to his car screaming and kept trying to stuff the papers under his windshield wiper, Whitton said. Finally, he threw the papers in front of her and drove off. She chased the car to the street, shrieking at him.

Unlike on some TV shows, a person identified as the recipient doesn’t need to sign for papers or even touch them for the service to be good, Telega said.

COMPETITION FOR SHERIFFS

Some sheriffs can also be unfriendly toward private couriers, viewing them as unnecessary competition.

The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office is one example. Forty-nine employees staff the sheriff’s civil section, serving 89,000 writs last year, said Gary Davidson, a sheriff’s spokesman.

“In the vast majority of cases, the Sheriff’s Office is in the position to do the best job,” Davidson said.

The Sheriff’s Office also charges less than businesses, Davidson said. And he argued that it’s better to have deputies deliver all civil papers, so they can learn to track the people who might need to be dealt with more seriously later. Some private servers will bend the rules—for instance, dropping papers on a porch when no one is home, Davidson said. But he added: “That’s not to imply that the majority of private process servers don’t follow the law.”

Telega said the Sheriff’s Office has always been hostile to competition. Private couriers, she argued, have distinct advantages.

Unlike uniformed deputies, they have the element of surprise, she said. And for something like a subpoena, there’s no reason to have deputies drawing neighbors’ attention to the person.

“It’s a more discreet way to do it,” she said.

Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming said he is glad to have businesses take some of the load off his two-person civil section.

“Our county is growing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up,” Fleming said.

Mitch Gordon, a Daytona Beach attorney, said he prefers to have the sheriff serve legal papers, but finds that businesses can respond quicker to rush orders.

“If time is tight . . . sometimes it’s more expedient to use a private process server,” Gordon said.

ANGER OFTEN AWAITS

Metcalf, who has delivered papers for three years, recalled that one of his scariest moments was at a weather-beaten house near railroad tracks in Bunnell.

A man took the papers, scowled, and punched the wall beside the door. Then he ripped up the papers.

“I thought he was going to get violent with me,” Metcalf said.

Servers say certain areas are especially bad—Ridgewood and Mason avenues in Daytona Beach, Daytona North in west Flagler, and Deltona.

Whitton and Telega agreed that Deltona has the most dangerous edge.

“I just don’t want to be there at night,” Telega said.

Not all deliveries are tense. Serving at offices is much easier because, unlike homes, someone is usually there to take the papers, and confrontations are far less frequent.

Still, tiffs do happen. Metcalf recently dropped off a request for an employee’s records at an upscale DeBary country club. To his surprise, a supervisor followed him to the car and started yelling at him.

“It comes when you least expect it,” Metcalf said.

By Scott Wyland of the Daytona Beach News-Journal

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