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?
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 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.
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.