What Can a Private Investigator Do and Not Do? (2022)

There are a lot of myths that people believe about private investigators. In the movies, private eyes may break into buildings to get information, follow people and take photos of what’s happening inside a home, or perform other acts that real private investigators aren’t allowed to do. If you are hiring a private investigator, or you believe you’re being investigated, knowing what a PI can and cannot do is important.

Why are Private Investigators hired and who hires them?

Private investigators are professionals who are good at finding information and can use it to help anyone who needs more information about a person or a business. They must act within the confines of the law to gather the information needed, but they can help with a variety of tasks. This can include looking for birth parents, checking the security of a business for the owner, looking for a missing person, or finding out if a spouse is cheating. A private investigator can work on a variety of different types of cases and can find quite a bit of information without needing to break the law.

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Can a private investigator arrest someone?

In most circumstances, a private investigator is not able to arrest someone, even if they see them committing a crime. The private investigator does have the ability to document the crime occurring, as long as they don’t break any laws to do so and can contact law enforcement to let them know about the crime. This could lead to the person’s arrest, but the private investigator would not be the one arresting them, as they are not police officers. A private investigator can sometimes make a citizen’s arrest if it’s legal in their jurisdiction. Some states allow this while others forbid it. However, a citizen’s arrest isn’t actually an arrest, and the private investigator cannot take the person to jail. Instead, they can detain someone until the police arrive and arrest them.

Information from a Private Investigator Can Lead to a Person’s Arrest

Private investigators are able to gather evidence when they’re conducting surveillance, with restrictions that vary from state to state. When they are gathering evidence, if they do find evidence of a crime, they can contact the police department to alert them to the crime. They can then document as much as possible about the crime while they wait for law enforcement officers to arrive. The private investigator can then hand over any evidence they might have to the police officers who arrive at the scene. The information gained by the private investigator can then be used against the arrested person in court to secure a conviction. All evidence that is handed over to law enforcement needs to be gained legally, but private investigators do have a lot of ways to gather evidence before speaking with the police about a crime.

Can private investigators carry a badge?

A private investigator is not a law enforcement officer and, therefore, cannot impersonate one, even accidentally. This is something that law enforcement agencies take very seriously. For this reason, most states do not allow private investigators to wear a uniform or carry a badge. If a private investigator has a badge or uniform and someone mistakenly believes they’re a police officer, they can get in trouble and can be arrested. In places where a badge is required, licensed private investigators are generally careful to avoid the misconception that they are working for local, state, or federal law enforcement officers.

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Can private investigators trespass?

Though private investigators can go anywhere that is public, they are not allowed to trespass. They cannot enter a property, house or building that they do not have permission to enter. If the owner of a home gives them permission, they may enter the home to look for information that is needed. However, they cannot break into a home, they cannot pick locks to gain entry, and they cannot use force to enter any building or property. If a private investigator is permitted to enter a building and the owner changes their mind, the private investigator must leave the property immediately.

Laws Prohibit Private Investigators from Wiretapping

Private investigators can gain a lot of information by listening in to a conversation, but they need to be very careful when doing so. The ability to record audio varies between states, so private investigators must understand the laws for the location they’re in. States will require one or two-party consent. One party consent means the private investigator can record a conversation they are part of without the other person known.

For two-party consent, both the private investigator and the person they’re talking to must be aware of the recording. If the private investigator is listening to two people talk and is not involved in the conversation, they cannot record what the people are saying. They can take photos of the two people talking and write down any information they get from the conversation, but they cannot use a recording device without the consent of the people having the conversation.

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Photos Can’t be Taken Through Windows into a Home

Many movies show a private eye following their subject, taking lots of photos as the subject walks around or after they enter a house. Private investigators in real life do take a lot of photos, but they must take place in public. Inside a home, the person has an expectation of privacy, so private investigators cannot take photos through the windows into the home. They also, in many places, cannot take photos of someone in their backyard or in any other place where they could reasonably expect to have privacy. If the person exits the home, the private investigator can begin taking photos again as the person is outside, in public, where there is not an expectation of privacy. Penalties can be severe for private investigators who are found to violate laws relating to the expectation of privacy, so they must understand the local laws and what they can and cannot do.

Private Investigators Can’t Hack into Online Accounts

Private investigators today do a ton of their work online. With public directories and other information freely available, a private investigator can get a lot of information without leaving their office. However, there are limits to the information they can obtain online. A private investigator can check social media accounts to see what is publicly posted. They cannot hack into the social media account to see what has been posted privately or to gain private information about someone. They also cannot hack into email accounts, mobile phones, tablets, personal computers, or other private accounts online to get information about their subject.

Protected Information Can’t be Obtained Without Consent

There is information that a private investigator cannot obtain without consent. This information includes bank accounts, financial records, or phone records. The private investigator may be able to find out where someone has a bank account, for instance, but they cannot find information about how much money the person has in the account. If they have consent, they can view phone records that might be relevant to their case, but without consent, they cannot see the phone records at all. They also can’t get other information that may be protected, though this can vary based on state laws.

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So what can a Private Investigator do?

With all of the things that a private investigator cannot do, it’s important to understand that there is still a lot a private investigator can do to get information on the subject of their case.

When the private investigator is seeking information on a person, they can gather a lot of different records, do surveillance, and monitor someone’s movements to determine more about their character and their activities. The information they can gain can include any aliases, their current and previous addresses or phone numbers, whether they own any properties, if they have any professional licenses, if they are married, and what their social media profiles are.

Private investigators can conduct stakeouts and follow individuals to learn more about their movements and what they might be doing. They can search through various databases online to get information on criminal records, marriages and divorces, mortgage records, and voter’s registrations. They may be able to look through the trash if it is legal in that location and not on private property. They can also interview friends, family members, associates, and neighbors to learn more about the person or to find out where they might be. Any of this information can be used to build a case and to find out as much as possible about the subject they’re keeping an eye on. They can gather the information over some time and then report back to the person who hired them with all of the information they have found.

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Private investigators can do quite a bit to get more information about people they are hired to learn about. However, they are required to follow local and federal laws, which means there are certain things that private investigators cannot do, such as arresting someone. When hiring a private investigator, it’s important to work with a PI in who is licensed in your local area so that you can have confidence that they will work within the laws that are specific to that jurisdiction. A licensed private investigator will understand what they can and cannot do to get the information needed to build a strong case, which means that if your case goes to court, you can be confident that the evidence will stand up to legal scrutiny.

If you have more questions about what a private investigator can and cannot do, call the professionals at John Cutter Investigations at (877) 528-8837 and speak with a licensed PI today.

FAQs

What can private investigators find out? ›

They can investigate:
  • Undercover operations.
  • Cheating partners.
  • Corporate cases.
  • Finding missing people.
  • Vehicle tracking.
  • Rural surveillance.
  • Insurance fraud.
27 Mar 2020

Can a private investigator follow you around? ›

Private investigators can conduct stakeouts and follow individuals to learn more about their movements and what they might be doing. They can search through various databases online to get information on criminal records, marriages and divorces, mortgage records, and voter's registrations.

Can a private investigator get text messages? ›

Can A Phone Detective Obtain Text messages? Like wiretapping a phone to listen in on conversations, a private investigator can't read text messages without the individual's consent. Laws vary from place to place, but a private investigator more than likely won't be able to obtain text messages.

How long can a PI follow you? ›

You are able to renew a Private Investigator (PI) license up to three years after expiration. If, after three years you fail to renew, you must submit a new application and begin the application process again to be licensed as a PI.

How do you scare off a private investigator? ›

Call the local authorities. With the help of police authorities, you can easily stop any illegal surveillance activities against you and report anyone who is trying to intimidate or harass you. That's how to stop a private investigator from following you right away.

How do you tell if a private investigator is watching you? ›

Pay Attention to Others' Actions

Private investigators typically stay one or two cars behind a subject's vehicle and they tend to keep their vehicle in your blind spot. Try making a U-turn to see if the vehicle follows you. Watch for someone following you on foot.

What is color walking private investigator? ›

Color walking consists of taking a walk outside, picking a color to focus on, and following that color as you view your surroundings during your walk.

Can private investigators retrieve deleted messages? ›

A Private Investigator or technician with Discreet Services can provide Cellular Forensic and Data Extraction services to recover hidden or deleted data that someone may have purposely or accidentally deleted.

Can a private investigator see Internet history? ›

Additionally, private investigators can search digital media including smartphones, CDs, cloud infrastructures and digital storage devices to search data, files and emails. They may also be able to unearth deleted emails, pictures and browsing history information.

Can a PI track a cell phone? ›

GPS tracking – using GPS trackers, private investigators track your phone by counting on the fact that almost nobody goes anywhere without their cellphone. If they have a GPS tracker installed in your car, or your backpack, then 99% of the time they'll also be tracking your phone.

Can a private investigator put a tracking device on your car? ›

In California, Texas, Virginia, and Minnesota, a private investigator can install a GPS tracker on a vehicle.

Does PI hold up in court? ›

Evidence obtained by a licensed private investigator working on your behalf is admissible and useful in court. It is important to understand that all evidence must be legally obtained.

Can private investigators hack phones? ›

Private investigators across the United States frequently face the question of whether or not they can hack a cell phone or computer for a client. Unfortunately, the short answer is “no” – not legally.

Can hiring a private investigator backfire? ›

If you hire an investigator for an assignment where they might infringe upon certain criminal laws and privacy, the investigation can backfire and have legal consequences for both the client and the investigator.

How do private investigators eavesdrop? ›

Private investigators may use headphones during the course of a surveillance mission. Many surveillance cases involve the use of audio equipment and listening devices. Private investigators often need to listen to conversations from a distance, so electronic listening devices and headphones are often used.

Why would a private investigator knock on my door? ›

Once they are found, the private investigator will need to confirm it's them and give them the paperwork. Many private investigators will do this by engaging the subject in a subterfuge conversation about what they're doing. For instance, they might dress up as a delivery person, then knock on the target's door.

How do you know if your being investigated? ›

You are visited or contacted by the police – The most common way to tell if the police are investigating you is if they confront you personally. You may find police showing up at your home, place of work, or reaching out to you by phone to ask questions about a criminal case.

Can a private investigator find out if someone is cheating? ›

The most effective way to monitor your partner's actions is to hire a private investigator. Private investigators are professionals that are trained in gathering information and surveillance, and they are the best way to confirm infidelity.

What is a door knock pretext? ›

Any door knock is a ruse to determine if you're home. It's called a pretext. We may fake being a friendly neighbor who is looking for a lost dog; we may pretend to be a mail courier or a contract cell tower repairman-all in the hopes that you'll answer the door.

What are investigators looking for? ›

A criminal investigator looks for clues and evidence to determine whether a crime has taken place. If a crime has been committed, investigators may look into the background of the accused and try to uncover who committed the crime.

What does a private investigator wear? ›

While criminal investigators commonly wear suits, some may wear plain clothes (i.e., jeans and a t-shirt) when they are on special assignment. Criminal investigators may need to use protective gear, such as jumpers and goggles, when they visit crime scenes with hazardous materials present.

Can a private investigator see Internet history? ›

Additionally, private investigators can search digital media including smartphones, CDs, cloud infrastructures and digital storage devices to search data, files and emails. They may also be able to unearth deleted emails, pictures and browsing history information.

Can private investigators track your phone? ›

A licensed private investigator runs legal searches of cell phone records through databases, networking, personal contacts, and even various surveillance techniques. A private investigator is trained to work within the law on how to investigate any outgoing or incoming call records to keep the investigation ethical.

Can a private investigator find out if someone is cheating? ›

The most effective way to monitor your partner's actions is to hire a private investigator. Private investigators are professionals that are trained in gathering information and surveillance, and they are the best way to confirm infidelity.

What powers do private detectives have? ›

Private investigators are allowed to:
  • Use GPS tracking.
  • Follow someone, in a public place.
  • Use public & Open source records to look for people.
  • Perform background and history checks.
  • Social Media and Internet Enquiries.

Can private investigators hack cell phones? ›

Private investigators across the United States frequently face the question of whether or not they can hack a cell phone or computer for a client. Unfortunately, the short answer is “no” – not legally.

Can a private investigator get social media messages? ›

The short answer is yes, if the social media posts are public, however, “A reasonable expectation of privacy” is a foundational principle guiding what surveillance and investigative activities are allowed and which are not.

Can private investigators see Facebook messages? ›

Private investigators look at Facebook messages that are comments in two ways: Looking at timelines – in just the same way YOU can read down through someone's timeline, a private investigator can read down through it and study the conversations.

How do I block my phone from being tracked? ›

Turn off the cellular and Wi-Fi radios on your phone. The easiest way to accomplish this task is to turn on the “Airplane Mode” feature. This shuts down both your cell radios as well as the Wi-Fi radio installed inside your phone so that neither of them can connect to their respective networks.

How do private investigators eavesdrop? ›

Private investigators may use headphones during the course of a surveillance mission. Many surveillance cases involve the use of audio equipment and listening devices. Private investigators often need to listen to conversations from a distance, so electronic listening devices and headphones are often used.

How do private investigators get phone records? ›

They use search warrants, but also their own contacts and surveillance methods. A private investigator can use the help of law enforcement to obtain access to cell phone records. Still, they can also rely on their experience and different databases to get the information they need.

Can private investigators find old friends? ›

In short, the answer is 100% yes! Private investigators can find just about anyone. It's a core skill that just about every investigator can do. Some, of course, are better than others are.

Can a private investigator put a tracking device on your car? ›

In California, Texas, Virginia, and Minnesota, a private investigator can install a GPS tracker on a vehicle.

What are the three main duties performed by private investigators? ›

Private Investigator Job Duties

Conducting surveillance on individuals, businesses, or locations for security purposes. Analyzing data and providing reports to clients based on findings for use in court proceedings. Interacting with clients to develop case strategies and plans of action.

Do private investigators have privilege? ›

With that said, a licensed private investigator does have one distinct privilege or advantage over a common citizen and that is the ability to follow and document an individual's activity, while on public property, without being subject to harassment or stalking laws.

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