If you watch movies about Private Investigators, you may be led to believe that private investigators are super sleuths who operate in legally questionable ways—hacking, breaking into buildings, bugging phones. However, this is not reality. While the day-to-day life of a Private Investigator may not be an action movie, the investigative job is still exciting and rewarding, and the work Private Investigators do result in crimes being solved, criminals being prosecuted, missing persons being found, and cases being solved.
In this post, we answer a variety of questions related to what private investigators can and cannot do. We will explore who is hiring PIs and why, review what private investigators do, and then answer some of the most common questions about what private investigators can and cannot do legally.
What Does a Private Investigator Do?
A private investigator’s primary job is to gather information for his or her clients. Depending on the case, this may involve a wide variety of investigative activities. In general, these activities include interviewing people, performing background checks, conducting surveillance, and tracking down other legal, personal, and financial information.
However, it’s important to note that certain jurisdictions within states (i.e., Anchorage, Alaska) have local requirements that private investigators must follow. In addition, all states require private investigators to meet all business requirements and may even require a business license to operate.
Who Hires Private Investigators and Why?
Individuals, organizations, and companies hire private investigators for a variety of reasons. Individuals may hire a private investigator to find a missing person, investigate facts for a court case, or conduct surveillance for a variety of reasons. Organizations, companies, and law firms also utilize private investigators to solve fraud cases, investigate workplace incidents, establish evidence for court cases, or conduct work on a variety of other issues. In particular, the insurance industry often hires private investigators to investigate insurance fraud.
Learn more about the different types of private investigators.
What Can Private Investigators Do Legally?
Because private investigators often do similar work as law enforcement and detectives, many people have questions regarding what private investigators are actually allowed to do. We’ve assembled the following Q&A section to answer the common questions we hear:
Can Private Investigators Make Arrests?
Private investigators are not police officers and do not have the authority to make arrests. This is true even in cases where a private investigator is a witness to a crime. However, information collected by that investigator may be used by police to lead to an arrest.
Some jurisdictions do allow for citizen’s arrests, but this is a practice for all citizens and unrelated to one’s role as a private investigator. In jurisdictions that allow for citizen’s arrests, private investigators should ensure they fully understand the law and ensure they are staying compliant with it.
Can Private Investigators Spy on People?
Privacy laws continue to be a hot topic today, and private investigators must be extremely aware of them to ensure their compliance with all relevant federal, state, and local privacy laws. The movies often show private investigators lurking around homes at night, snapping pictures of people within their homes, and stalking people in private places. This is not allowed by the law! Every person has the right to privacy in their homes, on their own property, and on other's private property. Private investigators who violate these privacy laws will quickly find themselves arrested or in legal trouble.
That said, if a person is in public, a private investigator may take photos of that person and surveil them as part of an investigation. However, private investigators should exercise caution and stay current on all local laws regarding photographing or recording people in public and strictly follow all laws relating to the use of these materials as part of an investigation.
Can Private Investigators Trespass?
Private investigators, like anyone else, can go anywhere in public. They are not, however, allowed to trespass on private property, break into, or otherwise illegally gain access to, any building, device, storage area, filing cabinet, or private property without proper permission. Hollywood often depicts private investigators trespassing as part of their job—breaking into buildings, climbing over fences into private property, and rummaging through filing cabinets that don’t belong to them. This could not be further from the truth.
Can Private Investigators Record Audio Conversations or Wiretap?
Private investigators are not allowed to break into someone’s home and plant bugs like in the movies or wiretap phone lines. However, certain states do allow private investigators to record conversations. There are generally two types of consent in certain states:
1. One-party consent - States with one-party consent means that one of the parties involved in the conversation may record a call legally without the other person’s knowledge. This does not mean that an unrelated third party (like a private investigator) can snoop on and record two parties’ conversations without either party’s knowledge that they are being recorded. You must be an active participant in the conversation.
2. Two-party consent - Other states have what is called two-party consent. This is a much stricter standard that requires both parties in a conversation to provide consent to be recorded. In these cases, covert recording of conversations is not possible or legally allowed.
Can Private Investigators Hack Into People’s Private Online Accounts?
Private investigators may under no circumstances hack into a private account or illicitly gain access to any private device, account, or information. Private investigators use the internet regularly for their investigative activities. They can access people’s social media profiles that are public, browse public databases and websites that contain information about people, and research people in directories of publicly available information.
Can Private Investigators Wear a Badge or Uniform?
Impersonating a police officer or other law enforcement official is a crime. This is why most states do not allow for private investigators to carry a badge or wear a uniform. In states where badges are allowed for private investigators, every caution must be taken by the private investigator not to misconstrue the meaning of the badge or give any impression that he or she is a law enforcement official.
Can Private Investigators Run People’s Plates?
In most cases, licensed private investigators are allowed to access certain DMV information. However, every state is different and has different rules and regulations for how to access this information and what information is made available. Privacy laws are gradually increasing across the country and more and more states are shielding information (such as address information) from private investigators.
For example, some states (such as California) may require a private investigator to input a person’s full address along with their vehicle information to see if there is a result. Other states give private investigators access to full DMV information if they are working on behalf of an insurance company or law firm.
It is incumbent upon the private investigator to understand and abide by his or her local DMV requirements and rules.
Learn More About Becoming a Private Investigator
Are you interested in becoming a private investigator or looking to earn continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain your license? NITA offers a variety of pre-licensing and continuing education courses for private investigators and security professionals. Learn more about our courses.
You might also like: