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Private Investigator Rules of Engagement

July 15th, 2015 | Ethics | 0 Comments

The scales of justice.

Part 1: Legal and Ethical Responsibilities in Accepting Assignments

From The Rockford Files to Magnum, P.I. till today’s top private investigation TV series, private investigators have been successfully promoted as arbiters of truth, who work tirelessly to uncover the facts for their clients. On the same token, however, pop culture has ingrained several misconceptions about private investigators in the public eye. Although we want to believe that investigators often discover essential evidence or catch perpetrators acting unlawfully within minutes of surveilling subjects, it simply does not happen that way — not even in the black-and-white era of television! And, while it is entertaining to see fictional investigators engage in high speed car chases, use firearms, bug phones, and enter businesses and private residences illegally, reality ordains that private investigators are ordinary citizens who must abide by laws and regulations, both State and Federal. Furthermore, ethical issues establish even broader limitations as to the methods employed by investigators (but don’t let the cold hard reality deter you from your favorite P.I. TV series)!

One of the most crucial things to know before presenting a case to a licensed private investigator is that we cannot, under any circumstance, break the law. That means if you request that we violate any local, state or federal regulations, or push the boundaries of the law to any degree, in order to investigate your subject of interest, we will not be permitted to involve ourselves in that transgression — both legally and ethically. Private investigators are constrained under the same governing laws as the ordinary citizen, and cannot commit criminal acts to obtain any type of information. Unfortunately, we are not, by any means, exempt from legal consequences. In fact, conducting an investigation unlawfully would potentially carry even more negative implications for private investigators than it would for the ordinary citizen, as it would also mean jeopardizing our licenses and permanently ending our careers.

Although license disqualifiers may vary by state, majority of states will disqualify an individual from even applying for a PI license if any of the following apply to you, according to the Detective Training Institute:

  • Have ever been convicted of a felony, whether or not your conviction was subsequently set aside, and your Civil Rights were restored.
  • Are currently under indictment for a felony, or named in an outstanding arrest warrant.
  • Have been convicted of any misdemeanors involving personal violence, misconduct with a deadly weapon, dishonesty or fraud, arson, theft, domestic violence, narcotics, or sexual misconduct within the last five years preceding your application.
  • Are on parole, community supervision, work furlough, home arrest, or release.
  • Are on probation pursuant to a conviction for any act of personal violence or domestic violence¹

It is our mission to emphasize that breaking the law is not in our job description, and it is not something in which we will engage — not only because of the legal consequences as stated above, but also because our firm operates with integrity and functions within strict ethical parameters. If a client calls with a proposition, we first inquire about his or her relationship to the subject of interest, and then we question the underlying motivation for the investigation. If no attorney-investigator relationship exists, and no subpoenas are presented to our firm, we will not be able to breach the subject’s privacy, as defined by the law. That leads us to a simple list of actions that should not [would not legally] be taken by private investigators with professionalism.

What WON’T a professionally licensed and credentialed Private Investigator do for an assignment without subpoenas or consent of the subject of interest?

  • Break the law — simple, but widely misunderstood!
  • Record any conversations or actions without full disclosure (e.g. no wiretapping or installation of covert audio/video devices).
  • Obtain bank account information of businesses or individuals without a lawful court order.
  • Obtain cell phone records, text messages, or provide cell phone spyware.
  • Hack computers.
  • Use pretext, or act in a deceitful manner, in order to obtain any type of statement from a subject. That he or she would not have provided otherwise.
  • Utilize a false identity or ruse to gain knowledge of the subject.
  • Obtain driver’s license or registration information without a legal right to do so.
  • Physically contact subjects inappropriately with an opposing party represented.
  • Trespass – whether it’s a private property or a prohibited area.
  • Extend the relationship with any party beyond the scope of the assignment (i.e. personal, business or social).

Stay tuned for our next blog posting for an explanation of the legal investigative methods Jennings Smith Associates, Inc. employs to assist clients in any of our service offerings.

If you or your organization have any questions or concerns regarding the legal or ethical standards of licensed private investigators, contact us toll-free at 866-629-3757 or email us at info@jsainvestigations.com and we’ll assist you in getting the facts you need. We look forward to hearing from you.


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