The Most Common Misconceptions About Private Investigators

Private investigators are often regarded by the masses as individuals who are somehow immune to the laws and behaviors expected from everyone else.  The perception is that  private investigators are able to operate under the radar and use whatever means necessary to do their jobs.

This simply isn’t true.

Private investigators must operate under the same laws as everyone else.  In fact, licensed private investigators are typically held under a microscope of extra scrutiny to ensure rules are being followed, laws are being obeyed, and all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.

The most common misconceptions about private investigators/detectives/police officers might somewhat weigh heavily on the variety of sensationalized movies and television shows available today.  Don’t get me wrong, some of my own personal favorites are Broadchurch, The Fall, The Killing, Luther, and Hinterland.

I apparently have a deep devotion to the British Broadcasting Corporation.

But it just isn’t true that private investigators operate using their own moral compasses or lack thereof, with a complete disregard for privacy, trespass, audio recording, wiretapping, and gun laws, among others.

As a private investigator who is often misrepresented, I’d like to set the record straight for the most common misconceptions the public has regarding private investigators.

Private investigators cannot legally obtain phone, financial, or medical records without consent or a subpoena.

Many clients, especially those who want to check out their partner’s cell phone records, are disappointed and sometimes surprised that private investigators cannot legally obtain them.  Unless the client is listed as an owner of the phone, they gain permission from their partner, or they get a subpoena, they are out of luck.

The same is true for bank records.  A private investigator might be able to determine the banking institution an individual uses, but they cannot gain access to the actual records themselves.

Medical and other private records follow suit as well.

Private investigators should pretty well refrain from placing tracking devices on vehicles until the laws catch up with technology.

Federal law is quite ambiguous on the topic of private investigators using GPS devices as an aid for surveillance cases.  Until the laws catch up with technology, private investigators (and anyone else, for that matter) will likely find themselves on shaky ground if they do use a tracking device for an investigation.

Even if they aren’t held criminally liable, they could still be held civilly liable.

Check each state’s laws for more detailed requirements regarding the use of tracking devices.

Private investigators cannot use entrapment.

Entrapment for a private investigator is the act of tricking a target into an action for the purpose of getting a specific result for a client.

For example, a private investigator is conducting surveillance on an individual who has claimed back and neck problems.  The client, an insurance company, is hoping the private investigator will get footage of the target that proves otherwise.  It is not okay for the private investigator to “bait” the target or create an opportunity that would entice them to bend over, carry something heavy, or something similar.

Private investigators must abide by state law in regards to audio recording conversations.

All states mandate either one-party consent or all-party consent laws.

In a one-party state, only one person participating in the conversation must be aware that the recording is taking place.  So as a private investigator, I can record any conversation to which I am a participant since I can be counted as the consenting person.  Most states are one-party states.

In an all-party state, all conversation participants must be aware of the recording.  Period.

However, it should be noted that, most of the time, conversations overheard in public places where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy are fair game.

Private investigators can never impersonate police officers.

This is pretty clear cut.  If you are not a sworn police officer, you cannot claim to be one under any circumstances.  This law applies to everyone, including private investigators.

Private investigators have zero arresting power.

To go along with private investigators’ inability to identify themselves as law enforcement, they also have no arresting powers.

Private investigators, like everyone else, cannot trespass on a property.

Private investigators typically cannot trespass.  We cannot break into someone’s home or make entry into a building without permission.  We cannot search a private property without consent.  The only exception to this rule is that a private investigator can make entry onto private property for the purpose of attempting to serve papers.

Private investigators can only perform forensics on an electronic device if…

Private investigators typically cannot uncover data from a computer, cell phone, or other electronic device without a court-ordered subpoena.  Gray areas tend to be with shared computers in a common living space, devices belonging to your children, or something along similar lines.

Private investigators cannot legally hack into anything.

Private investigators cannot access FBI databases, CIA files, sealed documents, private emails, or the like.

But Private investigators CAN ______.

I know.  What CAN private investigators do?  What makes us so special?  Well… nothing sensational or especially riveting, really.

Generally speaking, we are a hodgepodge group of skilled researchers, information-gatherers, and evidence collectors with crazy normal backgrounds like library science, real estate, and teaching.

We organize chaos, sniff out useful bits of information, and work with an urgent sense of efficiency better than some well-oiled machines.

Every private investigator has a unique skill set that defines their work.  Some are highly skilled at computer forensics.  Others have mad surveillance skills.

Some communicate so effectively that they can schmooze their own grandmothers into giving up the deepest of family secrets.  Others blend in so well with their environment that not even a trained K-9 can sniff them out.  Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but you get the picture.

Private investigators are an eclectic group of professionals who come together for a single purpose.  We seek to answer people’s questions by providing facts or evidence they didn’t have before they hired us.

Our work is 90% uninteresting and 10% total excitement.  But we are 100% awesome.