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Private Investigator Legal Limits

Television and films have created large misconceptions about the daily routines and strategies employed by private investigators. While these exaggerations and manipulations of the truth pay dividends in terms of ratings and box office ticket sales, they also cast a grey cloud over the work of real-life investigators who are often held to the unrealistic expectations dictated by their fictional counterparts.

One of the main differences/fallacies perpetuated by fictionalized entertainment is that private investigators can, or have the right to, break specific laws when gathering evidence for a case on behalf of the client.

Since investigators remain private citizens, they must abide by the law much like everyone else. While an investigator may work in conjunction with law enforcement officers or lawyers, an investigator does not have special legal privileges.

With this in mind, it is important to understand the legal limitations that exist for a private investigator, and to temper one’s expectations accordingly. Unlike the movies, investigators can not simply snoop around for evidence in places where they are not wanted or given permission/access.

That means that an investigator cannot wander onto private property, because that is considered trespassing. Recording conversations or wiretapping is also an illegal act if an individual is not granted permission.

While an investigators can determine the location of an individual’s bank account, specific information will not be available without proper legal permission. A similar situation applies to phone records, and without the owner’s permission or a court order, legal access will not be granted.

A private detective does their best within the framework of the law by observing the habits of those which they investigate using techniques such as video surveillance, interviews and meticulous research.

Once a pattern of behavior emerges over the course of an investigation, the video evidence can then be used in court or to prove that where there is smoke, a fire burns.

Please Note: The information contained within this article describes the general tasks which a private investigator is prohibited from performing, however this should not be considered legal advice. Specific rules and regulations vary in each state, so please check with your local law enforcement agency or a professionally licensed private detective to answer questions about their abilities and restrictions.

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