TV vs. Reality: What Your Private Investigator Can Actually Do

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Thanks to shows like Veronica Mars and Psych, viewers have a healthy respect for private investigators and their usefulness in solving cases and getting to the bottom of impossible problems. However, if all of your knowledge about private investigation comes from Hollywood, you may have a skewed perspective as to what a PI can legally do. 

Private investigators do not have an all-access pass to the world.

As you watch Shawn Spencer solve crimes, it is his tenacity and willingness to break the rules that often leads him to the evidence. He has no qualms about trespassing onto private property, assessing confidential paperwork, or impersonating his frenemy, Carlton Lassiter, head detective in the police department. However, a legally licensed PI (whether they claim to be psychic or not) is still a private citizen. They cannot legally:

  • enter a premises without permission. However, if they are invited onto a property, they can continue an investigation without any legal trouble. In fact, evidence gained without a search warrant is often inadmissible in court. But, if your PI knows evidence exists, he can inform the police department, who can get a search warrant for the property in question.
  • read or request paperwork that is not accessible to the public without permission. This includes phone records, bank statement, credit histories, case files, state evidence, and court transcripts. However, if your private investigator discovers that a certain protected document is helpful to a solving a legal issue, they can inform your lawyer. Your lawyer should be able to subpoena needed paperwork for the progression of the court case.
  • impersonate state and federal officials. Your private investigator has a badge that lets people know they have a license, but that is the only badge they should be flashing when questioning people associated with your case. When Shawn Spencer pretends to be Lassie while trying to solve the case of the missing diamond ring, he is actually breaking the law. 

Private investigators cannot record a conversation or bug a phone without someone's knowledge.

This is a sticky area of the law. In some states, both parties must know that a conversation is being recorded. In others, only one person in the conversation needs to be aware. However, when the world's favorite teenaged private investigator, Veronica Mars, is trying to solve the murder of her best friend, she wiretaps the guidance counselor's office and records the confessions of her classmates. She also bugs the office of Clarence Weidman. All the evidence she gains helps her to get to the bottom of the case, but if anyone found out, she would face criminal charges. 

Veronica is also bug happy when it comes to phone taps. Your private investigator will find phone taps useful, but only if they have consent from one person in the conversation. Sometimes, that can be you-- you can consent to your phone being tapped, and allow the conversations on the phone to help the investigation move forward. This is useful if you are trying to prove a case of domestic abuse, stalking, or harassment. Sometimes, depending on the state where you live, a phone tap requires a warrant, as it represents an invasion of privacy. Your private investigator will take your case to the police department to obtain this warrant in order to avoid crossing any legal lines. 

Private investigators can make arrests.

In some cases, your private investigator is in the position to make an arrest when acting as a private citizen. This is called a citizen's arrest. This means that Veronica's father, PI Keith Mars, could have arrested Aaron Echolls, instead of fighting him. Aaron is guilty of murder, which is a felony. Citizens are allowed to arrest someone else if they know for certain that the person in question is indeed guilty of felony charges, and that the felony actually occurred.

When you're looking for help with a legal matter that need more involvement than your lawyer or the police can give, a private investigator will help. Just make sure you are aware that while you PI may have some skills in digging, and is willing to check into anyone and everything that might help your case, they still need to follow the law. For more information, contact a company like New York Intelligence Agency Inc.