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10 Things A Private Investigator Can't Do

But It Looks So Easy In The Movies...

Hiring a private investigator can open many doors to you as the consumer when facing life's challenges such as a cheating spouse, divorce, child custody or needing a background check performed. Private Investigators have been vetted by the state and licensed to perform many valuable services for their clients. However, at times, clients have unrealistic views on exactly what a PI can and can't do. The influence of movies and television on the general public have greatly blurred the lines on what's legal and what's not quite legal when PI's perform their duties. In this article we hope to clear up some of the confusion by discussing the 10 Things A Private Investigator Can't Do. Let's start with #1 below: 

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1) Trespass On Private Property

Owners of property have rights just like anyone else and that means a Private Investigator must abide by those rights just like anyone else. A PI can be charged and found guilty of trespassing if they enter a location that clearly demonstrates the intent to keep intruders out. Examples of this may include but not be limited to fencing, posted No Trespassing signs or other measures of security or enclosures. Even if a PI manages to avoid legal prosecution, any evidence obtained by means of trespassing will not be admissible in court.


2) Make Arrests

During the many hours of surveillance, Private Investigators are often witness to violent crimes and on scene when offenses are taking place. How easy would it be for the PI to just make an arrest of the criminal then call the police? Unfortunately, that is not how it works. Private Investigators are not police officers and do not have the powers of arrest. Even in states where citizen’s arrest are legal, Private Investigators are operating under a different legal authority and must ensure they understand that states specific law before taking such action. However, Private Investigators can dial 911, video the offense, document the offense and provide witness statements to police which may result in an arrest.


3) Break Into Someone’s Home

In the movies, you see scenes depicting the stealthy PI picking the lock of the back door to the home and making entry inside. Once inside, he forages through all the personal belongings of the resident looking for the evidence he needs. Can a PI do that in real life? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Even if they are on an official case, they do not have the legal authority to enter someone’s home without authorization. If a PI performs this illegal action, any evidence they find will not be admissible in court and they will most likely be charged with Breaking and Entering.


4) Hack Into Email, Online Accounts & Electronic Devices

You know the proof you’re looking for is on their cell phone and if you could just hire a Private Investigator to hack into it, you would gain access to their email, pictures, text messages and you would win. Right? Wrong! Privacy laws prohibit accessing phones, computers, email and other online accounts without prior permission of the owner. This includes but is not limited to email, bank accounts, electronic photo albums, electronic storage accounts, phone records, social media accounts, phones, computers and file cabinets. The accessing of public profiles, databases and websites are completely permissible.


5) Run Credit Reports

Private Investigators have access to many special confidential files and databases not accessible to the general public. However, PI’s cannot access private credit information of an individual. These records are protected by Federal law and may only be access with the written consent of the account owner. 


6) Secretly Record Audio

Audio recording laws can vary from state to state in that some states require One-Party Consent which means one of the parties may record a conversation without the other person’s knowledge. In states where Two-party consent is required, this means that both parties in a conversation must provide consent to be legally recorded. Private Investigators are not allowed to secretly record audio when investigation a case. The same laws that apply to the general public apply to Private Investigators. Failure to abide by these laws can result in civil liability and in some cases criminal prosecution.


7) Impersonating A Police Officer

Dressing up to look like a police officer will lead a PI into a world of trouble. Private Investigators are not sworn law enforcement officials and must never place themselves in a position where they purposely try to make others think they are. Even if doing so would assist them in the investigation of a case, PI’s must always ensure the general public is aware they are not the police. This can include not using blue lights on their vehicle, wearing police style uniforms, displaying bades or using verbiage that would cause a person a person to believer they are operating under police authority. Violation of this will certainly find the PI incarcerated for Impersonating A Police Officer.


8) Violating Driving Laws

Movies do an amazing job showing the exciting lives private investigators have as they perform surveillance on their subjects. Often PI’s are portrayed driving in excess of 100 mph, running red lights, driving on the wrong side of the road and purposely causing collisions in order to complete their tasks. However, don’t let the movies fool you. Real Private Investigators are required to obey all traffic laws in the performance of their duties. This means if they are performing surveillance and the subject exceeds the speed limit, the PI must continue at the posted speed limit even if that means they loose sight of the person they are hired to follow. Failure to obey the rules of the road may mean tickets by law enforcement and possibly even incarceration depending on the violation.


9) Obtaining Medical Records

Medical records are protected by a variety of Federal and State laws which make them inaccessible by Private Investigators. The main one worth mentioning is The HIPPA Privacy Rule which created national standards to protect individual’s medical records and health information. Private Investigators can legally find out relevant information about ones health by interviewing family, friends, coworkers and associates. As long as the person shares the information voluntarily, there is no violation.


10) Obtain Video Through A Window

Even if taken from several hundred feet away while on public property, PI’s cannot use their amazing zoom lenses to take video in a place where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. This means if the subject under surveillance is at home and the window is open, video or photographs cannot be taken of that subjects’ activities. The subject has a reasonable expectation of privacy in their home and that expectation is protected by law. This expectation is also extended to their back yard especially when privacy fencing is installed.



At the end of the day, the bottom line is this. PRIVATE INVESTIGATORS CANNOT BREAK THE LAW and there are many things we as professionals can not do. However, the good news is, if the PI is knowledgeable at what they do, they don't have to break the law. There are so many things we can do, so many investigative techniques we can employ, access to restrictive databases, and information available in the public domain; that breaking the law is a useless and unnecessary thing to do. Hire the PI of your choice and trust they have the training, experience, knowledge and skill to get the job done and done legally.

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