You would expect most people to have a clear picture of what private investigators are allowed to do legally. But you’d be wrong. Thanks to an endless stream of detective-themed movies, the modern view of a private investigator is that of an unlicensed police officer who can literally do everything a cop can—without the restrictions attached to the office.
This is not true. If you are in the market for a PI, the following are some of the things that a PI are allowed to do and not allowed to do.
Private Investigators Can’t Wiretap a Phone Without Consent
Yes, it is true that a PI is able to wiretap a phone—but only if he or she has the consent of one or both of the individuals involved.
The rules vary slightly by state. In 12 states, a PI is required to have consent from all parties involved in the wiretapped call. In the other 38 and D.C., the statutes allow wiretapping as long as one party agrees to the recording.
A PI who wiretaps a phone with no consent is committing a crime and could be arrested if discovered. More importantly, the court may discard evidence of a crime that is gained in this way.
Private Investigators Can’t Record Private Conversations
As with wiretapping a phone, private investigators can’t record a private conversation where neither party is aware of the recording. For instance, you can’t hire a PI to bug your business rival’s conference room.
In some states, PIs are allowed to record conversations if one party is aware, while in other states, all the parties involved must give consent. But there’s a catch—if the conversation is held in a public area where it is naturally loud enough for anyone to hear it, a PI is allowed to record it or eavesdrop.
Private Investigators Can’t Trespass on Private Property
You can’t hire a private investigator to break into another person’s home. Private investigators, like law enforcement officials, cannot gain entry into a building or property without permission from the owners. It’s also illegal for a private investigator to open another person’s mail and read the contents.
Most states have stiff laws on privacy and trespassing. Investigators who are caught doing this may themselves be prosecuted. However, in some states, private investigators can enter a property if they have the consent of owner.
Private Investigators Can’t Obtain Protected Information
A popular misconception about PIs is that they can hack into government servers. Although private investigators are very good at tracking down information, there are certain limitations to what they can do.
Private investigators are prevented from obtaining information protected by state or federal law. For instance, private investigators cannot obtain someone’s bank account information. However, they can track down where people have their accounts.
If you were trying to build a case against an ex who isn’t paying alimony, a PI could help you find out if your ex has any undeclared accounts. However, the PI cannot see the balance of an account.
This restriction on information also extends to phone records, court documents, and the results of a credit check. PIs can make inquiries into whether or not a person has a criminal record, using legal means, but they are prevented from gaining access to the records.
Private Investigators Can’t Make Arrests
A PI can work on an investigation, uncover a crime, and even track down missing fugitives. But private investigators are not licensed to make arrests.
Again, there are some exceptions to the rule. If a private investigator witnesses anyone committing a federal crime, most states will allow the PI to make a citizen’s arrest. For instance, if a private investigator witnesses a physical assault, he or she can intervene.
In cases where a PI wishes to make a specific arrest, allowances may be granted depending on the case, state laws, and the PI’s relationship with the police.
Private Investigators CAN Run a License Plate
This part is true: Private investigators can run a license plate. But there are limits to when and how far this can go. A private investigator must have a legal justification before running a license plate.
You can’t ask a PI to run a plate simply because you’re “curious” about the ownership of a car. But if the PI needs to search the plates as part of a legitimate investigation, that’s a justifiable reason to do it.
What Makes a Good Private Investigator: The Law Enforcement Myth
One of the most prevalent myths about private investigators is that a PI has to have worked in law enforcement before branching into private investigation. The argument is that the time spent in the force is what gives the PI the training and deductive skills that he or she needs to succeed.
Although it is true that many private investigators have worked in various capacities within law enforcement agencies, it’s not a requirement for a career in the field. Many of the top PI firms have skilled investigators with no prior field experience.
It’s also important to note that beyond solving blue-collar crimes, modern investigators also help with financial and corporate issues—cases where a career in the police force really isn’t necessary.
Find a Private Investigator You Can Trust
Private investigators are held to the same standards and expectations as normal citizens. A PI can’t break the law in the course of his or her duties. This means it’s illegal for a private investigator to bribe, abuse, or use deceitful means to gain information.
That said, there are some PIs who do violate the law during the course of their investigations. You’ll find PIs who are willing to break into properties, illegally tap phone calls, and even masquerade as police officers.
Be careful about working with such PIs. If you choose to employ them, you risk being arrested or having your case sabotaged because of their illegal activities. It’s not worth it. To be safe, you should always hire the real deal.