There are a lot of misconceptions about private investigators. We’ve been so inundated by fictionalized depictions of PIs in films, television, and literature that we often forget what a good private investigator is allowed to do in real life.
It’s not unusual for someone to think that PIs are allowed to break the law and get away with it – just to be clear, they can’t. Private investigators have gone to jail for breaking the law during their investigations. And it’s safe to say that any private investigator you can trust will never break the law.
Here’s a list of the things a private investigator can’t do:
Work without a License
Most states require that private investigators have license. This means that not everyone can just hang up a sign saying that they are a private investigator and operate as such. While it varies by state, the licensing requirements can be quite extensive. It can include certified experience of thousands of hours of paid investigative work under a licensed investigator, passing an examination, and required education.
Break the Law
Private investigators don’t have a get-out-of-jail card. If they break the law, they’ll be liable. PIs have to follow the law in the course of the investigation. This means no trespassing; no wiretapping (definition varies by state); no hacking of phones, email, or social media accounts; no tampering with mail; and other illegal activities. They can’t even bug or track a vehicle without the owner’s consent.
This means that some client requests will be denied by private investigators. One common example: putting a GPS tracker on the car of a spouse suspected of cheating. Tracking a car without the owner’s consent is illegal in all states. Unless the car’s paperwork is under the person who hired the private investigator, the PI will deny the request.
Impersonate a Law Enforcement Officer
While many private investigators are former law enforcement officers, they cannot impersonate a law enforcement officer in the course of their investigation. This means that they cannot wear a police uniform, carry badges, or explicitly or implicitly mislead others into thinking that they are police or federal officers.
They are however allowed to wear uniforms and badges that identify them as private investigators – often when working with police or federal officers.
Legally Arrest Individuals
Only police and federal officers can make arrests by serving an arrest warrant. While some states do allow citizen’s arrest, it is very rare for a private investigator to do so as the circumstances that allow for it are very specific and varies by state.
Access Sealed Records and Privileged Information Sources
Private investigators cannot search sealed records. Some information databases like the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) are only available for law enforcement agencies and cannot be accessed by PIs.
They are only limited to documents and information within the public records. However, a good private investigator can turn up a lot of useful information from the public records by using their skills and experience.
Conduct any Unethical Practices
With their ability to access information, private investigators are held to the same standards as police and federal officers in regards with how they obtain and use information. Private investigators may not access protected information without consent and legal purpose (and sometimes a warrant). This can include: bank accounts, financial records, phone records, license plate information, credit checks, and other protected documents. And they are not allowed to use unethical methods to gain this information like intimidation or stealing or getting their law enforcement friends get the information for them.
Once they do get the information, they must only use it for the stated purpose. They are not allowed to use the information they collect during the investigation for personal or financial gain.