Process servers, locksmiths wary during evictions

11/30/2012 12:00 AM

11/30/2012 12:18 AM

Jeff Abegglen has some tricks for staying safe on the job.

"I post the notice on the door, then I knock, I stand 10 to 15 feet away from the door, and off to the side, never directly in front," said Abegglen, a Sacramento process server who frequently gives eviction notices to homeowners and tenants. "If they have a gun, they're going to shoot straight through the door."

Abegglen is one of the many behind-the-scenes employees who come into contact with people losing their homes.

That process turned fatal in Galt on Wednesday, when animal control officer Roy Marcum went to collect dogs from a home after the owner had been evicted the day before.

But the home was not empty, and Marcum was killed by a shotgun blast through the front door. Former homeowner Joseph Francis Corey was arrested on suspicion of murder after a long standoff with police.

The killing was horrifyingly similar to the April slayings of a Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy and a locksmith who were evicting a tenant in Modesto.

When someone loses their home, emotions can get raw, said Lauri Greenberg, co-owner of Moe's Process Serving in Sacramento, which employs Abegglen.

"Yes, these cases really hit home for us," Greenberg said of violent outcomes to evictions. "We do come up against hostility, and there seems to be an increase in hostility."

Greenberg said the number of unlawful detainers – the legal term for the eviction process – coming through her doors has at least tripled since the housing market crash in 2007. She used to serve 10 notices a month; now she gets 30 to 50 a month.

Filings for unlawful detainer shot up in Sacramento Superior Court at the beginning of the real estate crash. In 2007, the number of unlawful detainer filings was 11,687, and in 2008, it was 13,943. Since then, the number has hovered at just over 12,000. The number of filings this year to date is 10,116.

Process servers are typically the first in a wave of authorities dispatched to homes during eviction. They are hired to hand-deliver notices.

"There are more people who avoid service these days," Greenberg said. "We know they're home, the music and lights are on, but they don't come to the door."

If Greenberg discovers there's a history of restraining orders or firearms at a residence, she generally won't take the case.

Abegglen said he has become skilled at assessing whether tenants will leave voluntarily.

"You watch to see if they're making arrangements to get out, or hunkering down," he said. "Some are playing the system and just waiting until the last possible moment to move."

If attempts to serve papers in person aren't successful, the server is allowed to post the notice on the front door.

Then a sheriff's deputy posts a five-day notice to vacate. On the sixth day, a deputy physically escorts occupants from the home if they are still there.

Locksmiths go with sheriff's deputies to change the locks. Eric Nelson, co-owner of Jeff's Locksmiths in Sacramento, said he is cautious when accompanying deputies on eviction cases.

"We've found people hiding in cupboards," Nelson said. "It scares the heck out of you. I'm always ready to run away. I don't get paid that much."

Animal control officers are not routinely involved in evictions, though sometimes, as with Marcum, go to homes to deal with pets after residents are supposed to be gone.

Process servers are typically savvy in eviction situations, since they are used to giving people bad news, though they are not specifically trained for high-pressure scenarios, Greenberg said.

And servers are sometimes abused, either verbally or physically, while serving papers in divorce, custody or eviction cases, said John Arnold, owner of River City Process Serving in Sacramento.

"As a process server, we always approach a house with trepidation, because we never know what will greet us," Arnold said.

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