Surveillance is one of the most common job assignments clients request of private investigators. As a possible client or someone who may have been the subject of an investigation, you might find yourself asking, “Can private investigators follow you?” Understand that PI’s have no special law enforcement authority compared to an average person. PI’s conduct surveillance within the scope of their employment, and a professional investigator will do everything to ensure his or her work is both legal and ethical.
Can Private Investigators Follow You?
When a client asks for a private investigator to follow someone, the client is really asking for the investigator to conduct one aspect of surveillance. Following a person while collecting audio, video, photos, and notes are the basics of mobile surveillance. Private investigators can be quite skilled at conducting mobile surveillance, either on foot or by vehicle. To answer the question then, can private investigators follow you? Yes.
Surveillance is the practice of following and observing someone without being detected. Working within the law is one of a PI’s most important considerations when conducting surveillance. Some PI’s have it down to an art form. A PI can conduct surveillance and follow you anywhere in public spaces, but they cannot invade your privacy and they cannot trespass onto your private property.
Reasonable Expectation of Privacy
The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees a person’s right to privacy regarding personal affairs. But this doesn’t mean that people have an absolute right to privacy at all times. The courts apply the reasonableness test whenever a person asserts a right to privacy.
The most common example of a reasonable expectation of privacy is a person in their own home. You can reasonably expect to have privacy from prying eyes and listening ears whenever you are in your home, whether or not you are the property owner. But a person standing out in their front yard carrying on a conversation with a neighbor would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy from any person watching and listening from across the street. The difference is that the inside of your home is protected from the public by walls, doors, and closed windows. The outside where no barrier exists is not protected from the public.
A private investigator can only follow you and conduct surveillance in places where you have no reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, a PI can follow you into a crowded bar and eavesdrop on your conversations. Video recording is also fine in such places. But a PI cannot follow you home and look through your curtains to record video.
Anything visible to the public in “plain view” without the aid of any enhancements such as telescopes or listening devices is not protected by an expectation of privacy. The same goes for public records, published telephone numbers, and other records that are readily available to the public. This principle is also what allows private investigators to dig through discarded trash when the garbage cans are set out on the curb for collection.
Private investigators can follow you if they have a legitimate purpose for conducting an investigation. If all goes well, you will never know you were being followed or surveilled. A private investigator can be in any public place that any other person is lawfully allowed to be. Many states also exempt licensed private investigators from loitering laws, allowing PI’s to conduct stationary vehicle surveillance.
Being licensed doesn’t mean a private investigator can break the law to accomplish the mission though. PI’s cannot trespass on private property, invade a person’s expectation of privacy, or wiretap a phone. Most states also require all owners’ consent before a GPS tracking device can be placed on a vehicle. For example, a husband can’t hire a PI to put a GPS tracker on his wife’s car without her consent, even if the husband and wife are joint owners of the vehicle.
A professional private investigator always conducts an interview with a client before accepting an assignment. Part of the interview will be to find out why the client wants someone followed. A PI should not accept a job to follow a person who is named in an active restraining order. The client could be charged with violating the order and the investigator could face civil liability for knowingly taking the assignment under such conditions.
For this reason, many private investigators will only take cases that are connected to a legal proceeding. Is the surveillance intended to gather evidence to be presented in court? If yes, then an ethical, professional investigator will have little worry of breaking any laws. If not and the client only wants to gather dirt on someone, then more likely than not the investigator will be accepting some risks in taking such an assignment. With most states being no-fault divorce states, it doesn’t even make sense for PI’s to take cheating spouse cases because the information gathered won’t be relevant in a divorce proceeding.
Private Property and Trespassing
In many states trespassing is when a person enters or remains on private property without permission. In some states, the added element of specific intent to interfere with an owner’s property rights is what creates trespassing. In other areas, a property owner must ask you to leave before an act becomes trespassing. Private investigators are not allowed to trespass for any reason, including to collect information on a case.
Entering with the intent of committing a crime (some states stipulate the with the intent of committing petty theft or grand theft) is burglary. Taking personal property whether from an automobile or from a home is theft, creating a situation where a PI could be charged with burglary even if the collected items might be for a case. Breaking and entering can also be charged in cases where the vehicle or home was locked. PI’s cannot break into cars or homes to gather evidence, regardless if the doors are locked or not.
Depending on the state, PI’s are exempt from laws prohibiting loitering in public places. In some states, a PI must break off the surveillance if a subject sees you and asks you to stop watching them, regardless if the PI is on public property. High quality PI’s know how to operate undetected and to stay on public property while following a person during surveillance.
What About Just Using GPS to Track Someone?
GPS is a valuable tool that many people use on a daily basis. Using a GPS device to track your own location is legally very different than tracking someone else with GPS.
You can put GPS tracking on a vehicle that you own. For instance, a company can put GPS trackers on all their fleet vehicles to monitor vehicle usage. But you can’t put a GPS tracker on someone else’s vehicle that you do not own, such as when a person wants to track the location of their boyfriend or girlfriend.
State and Federal laws are not completely clear regarding private investigators use of GPS tracking devices. The Supreme Court issued a ruling pertaining to when law enforcement or employers may use GPS tracking devices, but nothing for private investigators and private citizens. For this reason, some PI’s operate as if the law allows the use of GPS trackers for surveillance work.
Any PI who uses GPS to to track someone is doing so at their own risk. A person could still file a law suite for invasion of privacy even if there is no specific criminal statute prohibiting a PI from using a GPS device.
When Does Surveillance Turn into Stalking or Harassment?
Stalking laws vary from state to state, but the element of fear is common to most stalking laws. Laws pertaining to harassment usually involve some type of repeated annoyance on the part of the harasser. Any acts of intimidation would be considered harassment. As mentioned earlier, if the client’s motive is simply to gather information on someone, then the private investigator could easily be charged with stalking, especially if the subject of the surveillance experiences fear or continuous emotional distress.
An investigator can be charged with stalking when using unethical or illegal surveillance techniques such as placing a GPS device without permission or trespassing on private property. The client in such cases could also face criminal and civil penalties for actions taken by the PI.
“Rough shadowing” is a form of surveillance where the investigator makes very little or no effort to conceal their own activities. Parking directly in front of a subject’s house, following them into their workplace, or continuously driving past a home or place of work can all be forms or rough shadowing.
The investigator may simply have very poor concealment awareness, or the actions may be to intentionally intimidate the subject. This form of investigation can subject a person to public shaming, ridicule, and damaged reputation. Besides being cruel and unethical, rough shadowing can also land an investigator in jail for stalking and harassment and can result in a lawsuit against both the client and PI firm.
Private Investigators Would Rather Not Be Noticed
Unlike what you might see in the movies, PI’s don’t where elaborate disguises or fake mustaches. PI’s make every effort to blend-in with the crowd and not be noticed. It’s not uncommon during surveillance for a PI to quickly change clothing items such as hats or coats. Multiple investigators may be involved in mobile surveillance to minimize the chances of the subject taking notice of being tailed. A successful surveillance investigation is one where the investigator gets the information he or she needs legally and without ever being detected.
Private Investigators Must Follow the Law
Private investigators can follow you if they have a legitimate purpose for conducting the surveillance. They can’t run red lights and stop signs, they can’t trespass, and they can’t invade your reasonable expectation of privacy. A professional licensed private investigator will operate in a covert manner without causing fear, intimidation, or public embarrassment to the subject being surveilled.
H7 Investigative Services conducts private investigations in Santa Clarita, Antelope Valley, and throughout the greater Los Angeles area.
If you want to know how our agency can help with your case, click through to our consultation request page or call us at (661)454-7513.