What Can a Private Investigator Not Do? Here is the Extensive List! #153

What Can a Private Investigator Not Do?

What can a private investigator not do? This question is not only important for the general public but for existing private investigators.  Laws are always changing and it can be difficult to keep up with what is ok to do and what is not ok to do.

Since I have worked as a private investigator I always err on the side of caution to avoid any potential and unnecessary legal risks as maintaining my investigation license is important and so is my integrity and reputation.

I have created an extensive list of what private investigators can not do with supporting documentation for you to review.  If something else comes up that private investigators can not do I will add to this list.

A Private Investigator Can’t Work Without a P.I. License (In States that Require a License)



In states where a private investigation license is required, a private investigator may not work without being licensed in that state. Nearly every state in the United States requires a private investigation license to work as a private investigator.  Only a handful of states do not require a license.  Because many states require a specific amount of knowledge, training, education or practical experience to secure a license, this helps to ensure that there are “competent” investigators providing services to the public.  Many licensing programs involve fingerprinting, background checks and an individual must meet the minimum requirements designated each respective state when completing the private investigator application.  Some states also require testing.   The license itself enables one to sell their investigation services.

Identifying yourself as a private investigator
A very old photos/identification from a company that no longer exists.

A Private Investigator Can’t Impersonate Law Enforcement (not even accidentally)

Private investigators may not impersonate law enforcement in any way.  This is why it is important that investigators not wear uniforms or have badges of any kind that would give the impression that they are law enforcement.

Even a Badge With the Words Private Investigator on it May be Misinterpreted

I remember working a surveillance early in my career and a woman asked me what I was doing parked in the area. I simply said I was an investigator working in the area.  After further conversation (which I did not encourage) I got the sense that she thought I was associated with law enforcement.

I remember another investigator getting approached by a teenage on a  two person investigation.  The teenager asked what he was doing in the area.  The investigator only flashed his private investigation badge (which did say “Private Investigator” on it) and the teenager walked away.  The investigator told me what had taken place.  I was upset because I was sure the teenager believed the investigator was related to law enforcement.  And though I was not the one who had a badge, I was associated with the same file the other investigator was working.  Nothing ever came of it but I asked that he never do that again while working with me.

Unless required by the state an investigator should never carry a badge.

Previous Cases Where Private Investigators Have Been Arrested for Impersonating a Police Officer

Private Investigator Problems in Palmetto, Georgia

In 2013 a private investigator named Paul Michael Libri was arrested by the Palmetto Police Department in Georgia for impersonating a police officer.  He was reported having handcuffs, wore a law enforcement uniform, had a badge, radio and a gun.  He was making traffic stops and questioning individuals.

You Only Live Once in Yolo County, California

In 2012 a retired former Parole Agent named Anthony Vegas who worked as a private investigator doctored his old corrections identification and used a phony badge to secure redacted police reports.

Most police reports are dedicated to some degree to protect the people or victims identified in the police report from retaliation.

His plan worked with several different departments until he was caught by the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department.

Private Investigators Can’t Break the Law

Private investigators are just like everyone else including law enforcement. We all have to abide by the law.  The rule of law is in full effect in the United States which basically means that no one is above the law.  As I keep saying, private investigators must abide by all laws.

Ignorance to laws does not make a private investigator innocent of wrongdoing.  That is why it is important to know case law and other laws associated to the job of a private investigator.

Additional Links to review regarding this topic.  The links will take you right to the pages that relate to this.

A Private Investigator Can’t Trespass

I find that private investigators run into this situation more times than not on surveillance cases.  The Legal Information Institute defines Trespass as follows:  “Trespass is defined by the act of knowingly entering another person’s property without permission. Such action is held to infringe upon a property owner’s legal right to enjoy the benefits of ownership…”

Parking on someone’s property without permission could be considered trespassing.  Private investigators are always looking for an inconspicuous parking location to conduct surveillance and this is where private investigators get into trouble sometimes.  If a private investigator is on private property and is asked to leave the investigator should depart from the property immediately.  This can also include private roads in my experience.

An Investigator Can’t Break in Your Home or Business

Private investigators can not legally break into a home or business.  Again, private investigators do not have any special authority.

breaking in an office

A Private Investigator Can’t Mess with Your Mailbox or Mail.

A private investigator should never touch an individual’s mail in their mailbox.  The U.S. Code detailed below states that no mail can be removed from a mailbox to pry into the business or secrets of another (which I believe would be more specific to a private investigator).

U.S. Code 18 U.S. Code § 1702 – Obstruction of correspondence states:

“Whoever takes any letter, postal card, or package out of any post office or any authorized depository for mail matter, or from any letter or mail carrier, or which has been in any post office or authorized depository, or in the custody of any letter or mail carrier, before it has been delivered to the person to whom it was directed, with design to obstruct the correspondence, or to pry into the business or secrets of another, or opens, secretes, embezzles, or destroys the same, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

There may be some gray area in regards to leaving a note or letter in a mailbox in the attempts to contact or locate someone.  Private investigators will come across situations where they can’t make contact with a residence due to it being gated.

There is documentation of a Post Master discussing this matter and how the main concern with leaving something in someone’s mailbox might keep a postal employee from delivering mail if the items are too big.

Private Investigators Can’t Record Conversations Without Consent

More specifically depending on what state you are in depends on whether it is a one or two party state. This means that in some states only one party needs to know that the conversation is being recorded while other requires both or all parties to be informed that the conversation is being recorded.

Private Investigators Can’t Film a Subject Inside Their Home

There are places that are off limits for private investigators to videotape.  Videotaping through the windows of a home would be considered an invasion of privacy.  Within the confines of a home, there is an expectation of privacy.

Even if a door is open and a private investigator can see their subject inside their home, the investigator should not videotape the subject.

Hack Into Personal Accounts

Private investigators can not hack into personal emails or records on any computer.  I believe this relates to any online accounts including social media.  Basically, without permission, it is a crime.  Much of the law surrounding hacking of computers can be found here under § 1030. Fraud and related activity in connection with computers.

I know that there are devices that allow investigators to “hack” or copy files from a computer as part of an investigation but it is with the consent of the computer owner.

Computer forensics (for the more serious inspections) of computers is a growing field and in demand.  There are even college courses associated with this type of work.

Computer hacking is against the law

A Private Investigator Can’t Run a Credit Check Without Consent

A private investigator may not run a credit report without the consent of the individual whose credit report is being run.  Usually, this comes in the form of a signed document acknowledging and providing permission to do so.

According to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, a credit report may be provided to another party with a legitimate need for the information.  This usually applies to:

  • Creditors
  • Employers
  • Insurance Companies
  • Landlords (or potential ones)
  • Or other general business

Eforms has a nice create your own consent form you can check out for free.



A Private Investigator Can’t Obtain Phone Records Without Consent

A private investigator can not secure phone records of an individual without the permission of the individual.

In the insurance investigation industry, it is very common for an insurance company to request phone records for their insured.  The insured can provide this information themselves or provide written consent for the insurance company to pursue that information.

Private investigators would need consent to secure that information.

Private Investigators Can’t Make an Arrest

As previously stated private investigators do not have any special authority and therefore can not make arrests.

A person can make a citizen’s arrest if they observed a crime in progress.  This essentially means you could detain an individual until the police arrive.

Solution Institute located citizen’s arrest statutes for each state in the United States which you may find useful.

Private investigators Do Not Have Police Powers or Authority  

Adding on to the previous paragraph, private investigators are not police officers.  We are not there to arrest but they’re to document and collect information.

A Private Investigator Can’t Lie About Evidence

Private investigators can not lie about the information they collect.  Whether it be information they are collecting or while on the stand in a courtroom.

Private investigators use date and time stamps on their video to show the accurate time and date of their investigations.

Many interviews are also recorded by private investigators.  Private investigators then write a report reflecting the interviews and the things that were discussed. This has many uses but it also provides a way for investigators to ensure that what was said in the interview reflects was is in the report.  And if there are discrepancies, the audio from the interview can always be reviewed to make sure it reflects what was actually said in the interview.

Private investigators will not doctor evidence no matter what.

Private Investigators Can’t Run License Plates Without Reason

In many states, private investigators have access to vehicle registration information or they have the ability to run vehicle plate information.

Private investigators must have a reason for running a license plate.  Investigators aren’t given the access to run plates with no investigative reason.

In the state of Washington, I have to provide a reason for running plate information.  If I decide to run a plate number the owner will be notified that a private investigator ran the plate information.

License Plate Search
Photo: Josh Klute @freeimages.com

Private investigators Can’t Use a Tracking Device on a Person’s Vehicle

Private investigators cannot use GPS tracking devices on vehicles to keep tabs on them in most states.  But it doesn’t mean that GPS trackers can’t be used all together in general. There is some gray area.

There is a court case in New Jersey that reflects a woman placing a GPS tracking device in the glove box of a vehicle her and her husband both owned.  The woman wanted to know if her husband was cheating.  She was also using a private investigator at the time.

The judge essentially ruled she wasn’t doing anything wrong because the vehicle was in public view on public roads and there was no expectation of privacy as a result.  It appears that an investigation company was involved in the wife trying to determine if her husband was cheating.  I have not found anything anywhere where it indicates that the investigation company placed the tracking device in the vehicle or whether they tracked the vehicle directly.

Most investigators stay away from tracking vehicles to avoid any legal issues.  And as a private investigator myself I believe they are smart to avoid using them all together as there is not enough case law to protect private investigators should they choose to use them.

California allows for a vehicle to be tracked if the owner gives consent.  Though it doesn’t state whether both owners have to be in the loop.

Private Investigators tracking private investigators

In regards to tracking vehicles, you might find interesting that even investigation companies track their private investigation employees with GPS trackers.  This is to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.  I personally would never consent to an investigation company tracking my personal vehicle.

They Can’t Pretext to Gain Knowledge of Information Related to Personal Information

In 2007 the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act was passed.  It is a federal offense to misrepresent, impersonate or deceive to obtain personal telephone information (phone records).

There are some exemptions to the law which encompasses law enforcement, insurance companies relating to fraud, and I believe private investigators relating to child support according to some articles I have read.

The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA), enacted in 1999, prohibits anyone from securing customer information from financial institutions (banks, credit card companies or credit reporting agencies under false pretenses (lying or pretexting).  So anyone (like a private investigator) pretending to be a customer to secure this type of information would be committing a crime.

With all this being said I personally have a narrow window of reasons why I use a pretext and none of those reasons are associated with securing protected information as described above.

Conclusion to What Private Investigators Shouldn’t Be Doing

I hope you found this information useful.  Investigation and wading through laws can be challenging.  Like I said early in this article I am always cautious and would rather avoid gray areas in the investigation industry to avoid any trouble.

If you feel as though something you are doing as a private investigator is in the gray area, reach out to other trusted investigators in the field.

If you are an investigator working for a company and the company asks you to do something in the gray area of investigations, tell them you don’t feel comfortable doing it.  At the very least be sure to have them put their request in writing to protect yourself.  When asked to put something in writing, investigation companies tend to lose the ability to deny telling investigators to do something.

Take care and be safe.

Andrew