Judge Asks AG to Probe St. Louis Sheriff’s Revenue from Process Servers

The judges have also shut down Sheriff Vernon Betts’ ability to charge fees to process servers — for now

Feb 23, 2024 at 9:47 am
St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts.
St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts. DOYLE MURPHY

A St. Louis judge has asked the Missouri Attorney General's Office to look into a bank account controlled by Sheriff Vernon Betts.

St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Joan Moriarty announced the referral last week at a 22nd Circuit Court Rules Committee meeting. The referral had been made by Judge Elizabeth Hogan. The bank account in question has a little more than $28,000 in it, money collected by the sheriff's office for training people to become licensed process servers in the city.

Process servers are individuals who serve court paperwork to people, usually summons letting them know they need to appear in court. Sheriff's deputies can perform this service, but oftentimes attorneys prefer to hire their own process servers.

For years, anyone who wanted to work as a process server in the City of St. Louis has needed to take a class with the city's Sheriff's Office and pay an initial $500 fee, as well as a $250 renewal (and no one could tell us how frequently renewals are required). However, court staff who researched the matter could find no record of the fee for process server training being approved, according to a letter to Betts from Judge Moriarty sent last Friday.

Rick Burrows has been a process server since 1985. "I'm the person you don't want knocking on your door when I'm working," he jokes. "I'm handing out invites to a party, but unfortunately there won't be cake or balloons. I'm in the professional hide-and-seek league."

Burrows opposes the fees charged by the sheriff's office, saying St. Louis is unique in charging them compared to other counties in the state. Illinois only charges people who want to serve papers $50 for a background check that needs to be completed every two years.

The fees in the city were first introduced in 1992 under then-Sheriff Jim Murphy. Burrows says the fee was raised to $500 in the last eight to ten years.

It is unclear what action, if any, the attorney general will take regarding the bank account holding the $28,000. In the meantime, Moriarty wrote in her letter that Betts is not allowed to charge any fees for process server licensing or training without permission from the full coterie of city judges.

Betts says that he sat down with some of the judges yesterday and they are all "back on track."

"If the judges leave me alone, I'll leave them alone," he says.

There are some details yet to iron out. Betts says that he wants his office to keep conducting the training, saying, "I'm not going to let every bum and every crook who thinks he wants to make some easy money being a process server. I'm not going to do it."

Betts is open to adjusting the size of the fees, but says his office can't provide the training for free.

The issue of the process server fee is the latest tiff between the sheriff's office and the judges the sheriff's office job is to protect.

Last August, the judges ordered 16 deputies to temporarily stand down after discovering they had not been properly hired.

Then in December, judges publicly mulled over the idea of hiring their own bailiffs, supplanting sheriff's deputies as their primary court security. They backed off the idea last month.

UPDATE: Late in the day a spokesman for the 22nd Circuit Court reached out to the RFT with the following statement, clarifying that the judges have asked the AG to look into fees for process serving training collected by the Sheriff's Office, not into the sheriff himself.

That statement reads, "The fee for process server training has been collected for decades, long before Vernon Betts led the St. Louis Sheriff’s Office. When the 22nd Circuit’s rules committee couldn’t find that an amount had ever been approved — as is required by the Court En Banc — our Presiding Judge referred the matter to the Attorney General’s Office to inquire about the issue of setting fees but not to investigate any wrongdoing by the sheriff."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Judge Joan Moriarty had referred the bank account in question to the AG's office. She announced the referral, but it had been made by Judge Elizabeth Hogan. We regret the error.
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