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6 Things Process Servers Can't Do

  • April 11, 2016
  • by Stephanie Irvine

Editor's Note: There have been some contrasting opinions regarding to the legality of looking in a person's mailbox. We've invited readers to participate in a discussion and share their interpretations of the law in LinkedIn and in the comments below.

Process servers are tasked with delivering important court documents to individuals for a variety of reasons. It’s certainly not an easy job, and it’s also a job that many people have misconceptions about. Sometimes, the recipient isn’t thrilled to receive the documents, and it can be difficult to effectuate service. Civil process service has a variety of regulations that vary depending on location, so process servers must be sure to stay up to date with state and local laws as they are always changing.

Many process servers are also private investigators. If you’re curious about what private investigator's can't do, we have a list of tips on PInow.

Process servers should always serve documents with integrity, and will keep in mind these don’ts when attempting service:

1. Don't Guess at the Rules

10 things process servers can't do

Because of the complex nature of civil process service, you cannot assume that your state’s rules are applicable throughout the entire U.S. Each state carries its own set of rules when it comes to how service can be made, what days service can be attempted (for example, some states prohibit service on Sundays and holidays), who can accept service, and how documents are handled.

Process server Sheri Snyder added to a group discussion on Linkedin that “In Texas no substitute service of state papers without a court order to do so.” Be cognizant of laws regarding subservice as well as the regulations regarding traditional service.

Greg Urroz also commented “...Only 10 states do not allow service of process on Sundays. Every state is different. If you send work out of state, you need to include an instruction sheet with your state's rules of civil procedure. Do not expect the out of state server to know your rules. If you receive work from out of state, look up their rules of civil procedure.”

As a professional process server, it’s imperative that you be familiar with all the rules of civil process in the state in which you will attempt service prior to actually attempting service. If you are unsure of the laws regarding service, check out our directory, or for the most current laws, visit your state’s judicial branch website.

2. Don't Touch That Mailbox!

While there is no crime against visually seeing (with your eyes only) an address that is in plain view, it is a crime to meddle with or open someone else’s mail. This means that you cannot open someone’s mailbox or go through a stack of mail, even if the stack is in view.

We've seen a lot of debate as to whether it's legal to check a person's mailbox. Want to add your opinion? Comment below or click here.

What Does the Law Say?

18 U.S. Code § 1708 - Theft or receipt of stolen mail matter generally

Whoever steals, takes, or abstracts, or by fraud or deception obtains, or attempts so to obtain, from or out of any mail, post office, or station thereof, letter box, mail receptacle, or any mail route or other authorized depository for mail matter, or from a letter or mail carrier, any letter, postal card, package, bag, or mail, or abstracts or removes from any such letter, package, bag, or mail, any article or thing contained therein, or secretes, embezzles, or destroys any such letter, postal card, package, bag, or mail, or any article or thing contained therein; or

Whoever steals, takes, or abstracts, or by fraud or deception obtains any letter, postal card, package, bag, or mail, or any article or thing contained therein which has been left for collection upon or adjacent to a collection box or other authorized depository of mail matter; or

Whoever buys, receives, or conceals, or unlawfully has in his possession, any letter, postal card, package, bag, or mail, or any article or thing contained therein, which has been so stolen, taken, embezzled, or abstracted, as herein described, knowing the same to have been stolen, taken, embezzled, or abstracted—

Source: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1708

What Has the Post Office Said in the Past?

Mailbox access restricted to postage paid U.S. Mail

The Postal Service wants to ensure the integrity of our customer’s mailbox. That’s why only Postal Service personnel are authorized to place mail in or remove mail from mailboxes. In fact, U.S. Postal Inspectors advise customers to report people going mailbox to mailbox who are not postal employees. It could be someone completely unaware of the statute placing advertisements, but it could also be someone trying to steal mail.

We recognize that, from time to time, the statute and the Postal regulations may cause conflict with some customers," the Postmaster continued. "When all factors are brought to their attention, however, we hope that the great majority of the public would agree that restricting mailboxes to U.S. Mail not only ensures customers receive their mail, but it also increases the security of the service.

The Postmaster noted an exception to the general rule: newspapers can be placed in mailboxes only on Sunday; a non-delivery day for the Postal Service. He additionally noted that a newspaper receptacle can be mounted on rural or curbside mailbox post or support.

Source: https://about.usps.com/news/state-releases/tx/2010/tx_2010_0909.htm

We've seen process servers weigh in on both sides of this debate. Some say it's legal, some say it isn't. How do you interpret the law? Want to add your comments to this discussion? Use the comments below or head over to the conversation on LinkedIn to share your view.

3. Don't Pretend To Be Something You're Not

Ultimately, your job is to deliver court documents, and sometimes it may require you to get creative to reach evasive defendants. Keep in mind that being creative shouldn’t mean being deceptive by attempting service under false pretenses or violating state laws.

4. ...Which Also Means Don't Pretend to Be Law Enforcement

By definition, civil process servers are not police officers. While many retired and off-duty police officers may take up this occupation as a part-time job, it’s important that the distinction be made. It is illegal in all states to impersonate a police officer or government official, and some states also consider it a crime to use police equipment (e.g. red and blue flashing lights or a fake badge) to imply that you are a police officer.

5. Breaking and Entering is Still Breaking and Entering

If someone refuses to come to the door or just doesn’t answer, you are still bound by the laws that prevent you from breaking into and entering a residence or business illegally. Just because you have documents to serve doesn’t mean you can break the law to do it.

6. Trespassing is Trespassing, Unless...

Similarly, unless your state has written specific laws that allow process servers to ignore no-trespassing signs or gates, you cannot ignore them. Process server Mark Burrow provided an excellent tip that some states use color to denote no trespassing: In Texas, purple paint displayed a certain way on fence posts and gates denotes ‘No Trespassing,’ taught in our Texas Process Servers Training Class. Other states have similar laws but require different color paint, [for] example orange or lime green.”

Check with your local laws regarding civil process servers and trespassing because it can vary from state to state.

A Lot More Don'ts, and Even More Do's

Process servers have a difficult job — not just in the nature of attempting service alone, but in staying current with federal and state regulations, which are often changing, especially with updates to current technology. Process servers always do the best job they can to stay apprised with the updated legislation. Most join local civil process service associations or online industry groups to help stay current with the ever-changing laws.


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