Friend/family acting as official courier — possible legal hassles?
May 6, 2017 1:21 AM   Subscribe

Hi Mefi, I know you are not my lawyer but this is more of a sanity check question. A relative lives across the country and needs to deliver a document in the Bay Area by courier. They have asked me if I could do this, since, in their words, friends and relatives can legally act as couriers if needed. According to them, the envelope would contain an official court document. I would need to deliver it to someone in person, then fill out an affidavit listing the name, time, place, and appearance of the person. After that, I would need to get the affidavit signed and verified with a notary. Is this legit and would it cause me any legal hassles down the line (assuming I deliver and fill out the affidavit with accuracy)? I want to help my relative but I also want to make sure all my bases are covered. Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I hate to cast aspersions on your relative, but there is a nonzero chance that this person is lying to you: they are not trying to get you to "act as a courier" (which is just a private business service and not a matter of law, in most cases), they are trying to get you to serve process in a court case. The description you give of what they're asking you to do is basically what someone does to serve process. While most service of process is routine and mundane, if the person later disputes that service took place, you could find yourself dragged into a court hearing, and, well, some people do react badly to attempts to serve them, since that's what officially pulls them into a lawsuit.

If I'm right about that--which, I hasten to say, is not guaranteed--the fact that they misled you should be grounds enough for any sensible person to steer clear of the situation. Anyone who lies to you so significantly about the extent of a favor they are asking of you is clearly not someone you need to be doing favors for. Spare yourself the drama.
posted by praemunire at 1:45 AM on May 6 [47 favorites]

I'm a lawyer in a completely separate legal system (England) and my answer to someone over here asking such a question would be exactly the same as that praemunire has given. You are potentially climbing into a great big can of worms if you do this and I'd agree that it comes across as naive or disingenuous of your relative not to warn you about this before asking you.
posted by Major Clanger at 5:34 AM on May 6 [4 favorites]

IANAL, TINLA: I would steer clear of this. It sounds very much like process serving, as praemunire pointed out. Either your relative is being disingenuous at best (and, at worst, directly lying), or they are themselves deeply confused about what it is they are asking you to do. Neither inspires confidence. If it were a close relative I might ask for clarification, but otherwise I would point them to process serving companies. There are even Yelp reviews of process servers in the Bay Area!
posted by brianogilvie at 7:59 AM on May 6

This sounds like process serving. The downside to this is that the person you are delivering the document to may very much not want to receive the document and so in order for you to complete this task you will have to harass and/or hassle this person into accepting the document. This is unfun, bad karma, all the rest. This is a job and one your relative can pay someone to do. There is a decent chance, if this is the case, that your relative has already tried normal ways of getting this information to this person (regular mail, certified mail, etc) and has been refused. I would not do this.
posted by jessamyn at 8:19 AM on May 6 [5 favorites]

I had a family member serve someone in a lawsuit, twice, and I've served someone for someone else. In all three cases it was fine. I suppose you might have to testify in court. But you wouldn't be "in trouble," if that's what you mean by "cause me any legal hassles." (I mean, if you served them by breaking into their home at 4:30 AM, then yes. But if you follow reasonable guidelines, then I can't see how.) In fact, even if things don't go smoothly, it's not hugely likely that you'd have to testify. The reason my relative served the other party twice was because these upstanding people disputed that service had occurred the first time. It was easier to just serve them again -- this time in front of dozens of witnesses -- than to fight in court about whether service had occurred. (And yes, we turned to serving them ourselves because their efforts to evade the regular process servers had succeeded and cost us hundreds of dollars.) In the case when I served someone, it was very workaday. The receptionist accepted service with a blase demeanor. In that case, it would have been fair to describe my role as basically one of a courier. In the other, there was definitely a chase / evasion overtone that added to things, but since my family member knew the whole crazy story (including all our efforts to keep things from going to court in the first place), he found it fun.
posted by slidell at 8:41 AM on May 6 [1 favorite]

Nth. What they're asking you to do is (the substance of) service of process, which is a job that one pays professionals to do. It's not so much that it can get you in trouble, as that it is working for free, and depending on what the docs are and how cooperative the recipient is, you could be dragged into complications down the line.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:15 AM on May 6 [1 favorite]

Wow, relative reallly should have been straightforward and presented this as process service instead of courier service so that you could make an informed decision, as there are some risks to process service. The lack of forthrightness would make me want to say no.
posted by kapers at 9:58 AM on May 6 [2 favorites]

In the case when I served someone, it was very workaday. The receptionist accepted service with a blase demeanor.

Not that it matters now, but, just to make the practical aspects clearer for OP, you almost certainly didn't successfully serve the defendant! A receptionist is not generally considered an appropriate person to serve on behalf of a corporation, and a doorman definitely isn't.

It was easier to just serve them again -- this time in front of dozens of witnesses -- than to fight in court about whether service had occurred.

If that was predictably easy to do, there wouldn't have been the struggle to serve them in the first place. These hearings do happen, all the time.

I mean, I've brought a suit before, and I had a friend serve for me, but (a) it was on an out-of-state corporation, so the procedure was simpler and there wasn't any real concern about mischief by the defendant and (b) she knew what I was asking her to do. There are certainly circumstances in which I would say there was any risk of subsequent obnoxiousness from doing this would be outweighed by one's responsibilities to a friend or family member. The key point is the (likely) deceptiveness and/or irresponsible levels of ignorance. If you don't instinctively know to avoid getting involved in what must be a fairly elaborate dispute when the person is not telling you the truth about the implications of your involvement, then I guess you've been lucky enough never to have a real user in your family/close social circle.
posted by praemunire at 10:19 AM on May 6

praemunire is absolutely correct. When I needed to serve my ex-husband (he lives in Florida, I live in New York) with Family Court documents suing him for sole legal and physical custody of our two minor daughters, I contacted the Sheriff's Department within his County of residence to execute the service of process. They charged a fee of $65.00, but it was well worth the money to me to have him legally served at his home, to where I could trust every detail would be scrupulously covered.

I am not sure how difficult it would be for you to decline this untoward request from your relative, but please consider doing just that. Especially if they are putting this upon you just to avoid paying a fee. Best luck.
posted by Amor Bellator at 10:51 AM on May 6 [4 favorites]

I'd also add that it's not great to have friends and relatives serve process because it raises questions as to whether service was actually effected or if you just got a buddy to fill out an affidavit for you. This means there's probably a better chance of service being contested, and a better chance the process serving friend would have to testify.
posted by sherief at 5:25 PM on May 6 [3 favorites]

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