On a scale of “average citizen” to “police officer,” a private investigator falls somewhere in the middle.
While licensure requirements vary by state, private investigators are generally known for being licensed professionals who investigate a variety of types of people and situations.
Although we often see PIs portrayed in movies as badass super-detectives who aren’t restricted by any boundaries, the reality is that private investigators are held to many of the same restrictions normal citizens are held to. Still, they aren’t normal citizens and here’s why:
What Can Private Investigators Do?
1. A PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR MAY HAVE A BADGE
It is illegal for any person–even a private investigator–to impersonate a police officer. A private investigator is not authorized law enforcement and therefore cannot claim any affiliation with law enforcement.
The only arrest a private investigator can make is a citizen’s arrest. However, PIs do have a certain amount of legal authority that the average citizen doesn’t. Different states may have different requirements, but most private investigators are licensed and carry badges or specific PI identification.
2. A PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR CAN ACCESS PUBLIC RECORDS
Although private investigators can’t legally order a credit report or access sealed records, they do have the ability to access public records.
Because they are professionals, they may have accounts and connections within certain departments to be able to access these records a lot faster than the average citizen. These records could tell them a lot about a person, whether that person has a criminal background or has simply filed for bankruptcy.
Never underestimate how much a trained eye can learn from rifling through the public records of different departments and agencies of the government.
3. A PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR CAN OBTAIN PROTECTED INFORMATION
If private investigators can get a subpoena through the court, they can access information that would otherwise be protected. This includes phone records, financial records, and bank account information, among others.
The only caveat is that such protected information can only be accessed with the help of the court: PIs can’t do it all on their own.
Without the court’s help, the most private they can get is running a license plate (if they have legal purpose to do so). A license plate alone can help private investigators locate someone or gather information for court proceedings.
4. A PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR CAN SPY
Okay, so private investigators aren’t international super spies. They aren’t above federal laws that prohibit wiretapping phone lines, placing GPS trackers, tampering with mail, or hacking and placing spyware. They aren’t allowed to be peeping toms either.
Despite what the movies will tell you, they aren’t allowed to place recording devices or nanny cams and they definitely aren’t allowed to take pictures through your bedroom window. However, they are allowed to spy on anybody in public spaces. This could mean taking pictures of a cheating spouse kissing in the park. It could mean taking a video of someone taking part in a drug deal in a back alley. Basically, anything that doesn’t take place on private property is up for grabs.
All in all, private investigators are restricted by virtually the same laws that affect the average citizen. However, due to their experience and training, they can do a lot more with those laws than any given citizen might. They know how to make the laws work for themselves in ways the average Joe may never know.