Each state has its own rules when it comes to serving process on someone. “Serving process” is when an individual is formally notified that there are court proceedings against them. A professional known as a process server — sometimes a sheriff, but oftentimes a person employed specifically for this purpose — will hunt that defendant down and knock on their door to say, “Are you so-and-so?” Then, they dramatically hand over the legal papers. “You have been served.”
But there are rules, and each state is different. Can you walk onto their property? If you do, can that person legally shoot you for trespassing? Can you drop papers on their doorstep, or do you have to hand it to them and make sure they actually take the papers? Can you throw it at them and run? (Probably inadvisable.)
There is sometimes what is called “substitute service,” and this is used when the defendant is unable to be located. Substitute service could be a publication in a newspaper where the defendant was last known to be living. Now, the plaintiff could say that the defendant had been put on constructive notice of the case proceedings. Some states allow for papers to be left with a competent adult at the defendant’s home or with someone at their place of business.
Anyone can be a process server, really. Movies make us think of big, burly men with mullets and guns forcing their way onto people’s property, but that’s really not the case. Most of the time it’s just anyone over the age of 18 looking to make extra money after normal work hours, because that’s when everyone is home and available to collect legal papers.
Do you really want to leave it to some 18-year-old kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing, though? He’s thinking about prom and hiding his acne. You want someone who has done this before, hundreds of times. Orange Legal has process servers on staff who have worked in every state, tracking defendants down when they don’t want to be found. (Like, does a teenager even know what a skip trace is? Has he done document retrieval or gone to a foreclosure sale on a client’s behalf?)