Movies and television often depict private investigators as willing to bend any rule to solve a case. In real life, private investigators are strictly regulated throughout the United States. Where PI specific laws don’t exist, investigators are still bound by the same laws as any other private citizen. PI’s usually have more specialized training and access to various tools not available to the general public. To be a professional, however, there are certain things private investigators can and can’t do to help their clients.
Table of Contents
- 1 Can Only Work with a State License
- 2 Can’t Break the Law
- 3 Can Conduct Surveillance
- 4 Can’t Trespass
- 5 Can Run Background Checks for Clients
- 6 Can’t Pretend to be Law Enforcement
- 7 Can Locate and Interview Witnesses
- 8 Can’t Record Conversations without Consent
- 9 Can Research Openly Available Internet Content
- 10 Can’t Go through Someone’s Mail
- 11 Can Dig through Someone’s Trash
- 12 Can’t Get Bank Records
Can Only Work with a State License
Most states have very strict laws regulating the conduct of private investigators. Alaska, Idaho, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Mississippi are the exceptions, but in those states a business license is still required to run a PI firm. Also, holding a license in one state doesn’t automatically allow a PI to work in another state.
Licensed PI’s in California must accumulate 6,000 hours of verified investigative work without a degree, 4,000 hours with a bachelor degree, or 5,000 hours with an associate degree. College degrees must be in police science to count toward licensing requirements. Only persons with extensive investigative experience and a clean background check will qualify to sit for the PI exam. Many states either have similar laws to California or will soon adopt such strict regulations.
Can’t Break the Law
In addition to following state regulations, PI’s are also subject to the same laws as any ordinary citizen. Simply holding a license doesn’t grant an exemption to trespassing on private property or infringing on a person’s expectations of privacy. PI’s also can’t use deceitful methods of coercion such as bribery, pretexting, or impersonating the subject of an investigation to gather information.
PI’s can’t break the law to help a client, and a professional investigator will refuse to work for a client who asks the PI to do anything unlawful. PI associations will sanction any member who breaks the law or otherwise violates the association’s code of conduct.
Can Conduct Surveillance
Surveillance is one of the most requested services for any private investigation agency. PI’s primarily conduct surveillance from a vehicle, although sometimes an investigator will need to get out on foot to keep track of a subject. Surveillance is an excellent tool for many cases such as insurance fraud, infidelity, and child custody. PI’s also use modern technology such as high-powered digital cameras and drones to enhance the evidence they can collect while out on surveillance.
A private investigator can’t break into a home or building for any reason, and a PI must immediately leave when asked by a property owner. Some areas of the US require a person to have owner’s permission before entering private property. If the PI doesn’t leave immediately when asked, the property owner can call law enforcement and have the investigator prosecuted for trespassing.
Can Run Background Checks for Clients
A thorough background check is necessary to ensure a person will properly represent a company’s business interests. Companies often hire PI’s to run background checks on new employees or job candidates. Positions that involve high trust and security will require a background check that goes back several years and involves interviews of former business associates, friends and neighbors. A good background check will also look for any negative financial information or criminal history. Some clients pay to have similar pre-marital checks. It’s good to get a subject’s consent prior to conducting a background check. A check without the subject’s consent can become more complicated due to privacy regulations.
Can’t Pretend to be Law Enforcement
PI’s sometimes work with the police to solve a case, but that doesn’t mean they have the same powers or authority as law enforcement. They can’t make arrests (other than a private persons’ arrest in the US), and they can’t carry any insignia that would cause a reasonable person to believe the investigator is law enforcement (i.e. badges, uniforms, emblems, etc.). In California, PI’s must carry their state issued license with them and a photo ID whenever working for a client, and a new enhanced photo ID is also required for California PI’s.
Can Locate and Interview Witnesses
Access to modern tools, techniques, and databases help private investigators find and interview witnesses for criminal and civil cases. The police sometimes fail to interview every witness to a criminal case. Witnesses sometimes do not want to be found. Other times a person will not even realize they have relevant information for a case. A well-trained investigator will locate witnesses, conduct efficient interviews, and compile all the necessary witness testimony to support their client’s case.
Can’t Record Conversations without Consent
For some areas of the US, recording a conversation without at least one person being aware of and consenting to the recording is illegal. Other places such as California, all parties involved in a conversation must give consent to be recorded. These rules apply only in places where the concept of reasonable expectation of privacy though. This is how PI’s get away with recording people in places like bars or while walking down the street. If two people were having a private conversation in an office behind closed doors, both people must consent to be recorded because they have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the office. But if the same two people were sitting at a park bench out in the open near a city street, privacy laws would not protect whatever conversation they might have.
Can Research Openly Available Internet Content
In the United States, email and social media accounts are protected by state and federal privacy laws. Hacking into someone’s personal email or social media is a crime, and an ethical private investigator will avoid even the appearance of committing such a crime. Privacy laws do not protect a person’s account when their accounts are open to the public though. Private investigators also use many tools to scour the internet for open source data such as names, addresses, news articles, family connections, government records, and company information.
Can’t Go through Someone’s Mail
Private investigators have no special authority to access any person’s mail without their consent. Intentionally tampering with another person’s mail is a federal offense and carries serious consequences. A mailbox itself is considered federal property. A person convicted of theft of mail can face up to five years in federal prison and fines of up to $250,000. Opening a mailbox to steal mail can come with additional charges such as breaking and entering and vandalism. An ethical PI should know the consequences of tampering with any person’s mail and would never result to such tactics to gather information.
Can Dig through Someone’s Trash
Trashcans are fair game depending on where they’re sitting at the time an investigator decides to go digging. Laws governing when garbage is no longer personal property vary by state and county, but in general, trash is considered discarded when it is set out on the curb for collection. If an investigator goes onto private property to go dumpster diving, the act can be charged as criminal trespassing and any evidence obtained will not be admissible in court. This is why a good PI will find out a neighborhood’s pickup day before going out to collect any trash. Once a garbage can is left out for collection, anything inside can be grabbed for later inspection.
Can’t Get Bank Records
A good private investigator can locate the existence of bank accounts through good old-fashioned investigative work like interviews and public records searches, but accessing the details of a bank account is illegal without a court order. Although PI’s have access to databases not available to the general public, no database exists that lists investments or bank accounts. Without a court order or search warrant, law enforcement also cannot access any person’s bank account. The only other way to get bank records outside of a court order or subpoena, an investigator can only get bank records with the specific consent of the account owner.
Private investigators get all sorts of requests, but the items discussed here are some of the more common things clients ask to be investigated.
H7 Investigative Services conducts investigations in Santa Clarita, Antelope Valley, and throughout the greater Los Angeles area.
If you want to find out how our agency can help solve your case, click through to our consultation request page or call us at (661)454-7513.