We’re always looking for ways to help PIs stay on the right side of the law and avoid any issues that come with accidentally breaking laws. That could mean failing to solve a case, rendering evidence useless in court – or even opening your PI business to large lawsuits.
One of the trickier situations is when an investigator is first visiting a new area with plans to look for evidence. In these cases, PIs may be looking to document a subject in the act of a crime, or when breaking a contract. They could also be looking to collect physical evidence at the location. To help avoid any liability issues from breaking laws, here are several questions PIs should always ask when first arriving.
Where Are the Boundaries of the Property?
Private investigators have a lot of freedom in public spaces, like streets and public sidewalks. This is where legal surveillance can take place, so it’s always good to look at nearby public spots with good vantage points for watching people, taking photos, and other activities. Note where public spaces end – you may even want to pull up a map app or consult online information about property lines if necessary. Crossing over into public property is considered trespassing for PIs, who don’t have any legal authority to do it.
Do I Need to Ask Permission for What I’m About to Do?
PIs do have one powerful tool when going on private property – the ability to ask permission. If the owner gives express permission to the PI, they’re no longer in legal trouble. This is also true of anything at the location that the PI may want to take a closer look at, like a personal computer: If they get permission from the owner, they are in the clear.
Keep in mind, PIs can’t impersonate authority figures to get permission to be on a private property. They can’t pretend to be police officers, for example. It’s legally dicey to trick a current owner by other means, too, so be careful what you say. When possible, such as with a domestic case, PIs should ask the person who hired them if they can grant permission to go on private property. Keep this in mind for companies hiring PIs to investigate commercial properties, too.
Where Are the Trash Cans Located?
This may seem like an odd question at first, but it’s a common part of many cases, PIs regularly look in trash for thrown-away documents, receipts, letters, and much more. That’s why many PIs eye trash locations when first investigating a new place. If that kind of evidence is on your list, make sure that trash is located in a public space before you go dumpster diving. Just because it’s in the trash, doesn’t always mean it’s fair game.
Where Is Privacy Expected?
This is a vital question for PIs that plan on taking photos or video to collect evidence. They may be looking for signs that an employee isn’t fulfilling their duties while remote working, for example, or seeking evidence of an affair. Laws about this kind of surveillance typically depend on a concept called expectation of privacy. If a person, especially on their own property, has an expectation of privacy in a specific place, that makes it illegal to snap photos or video of them. That includes obvious places like bathrooms, as well as bedrooms spotted through home windows. Depending on the circumstances, it may also apply to backyards and gardens.
When possible, PIs should document people entering and leaving homes, which is generally allowed, and gather evidence of what people do in public places.
Where Are Alternative Vantage Points?
If a PI is planning on long-term surveillance of a property, it’s good to look around and find a few different spots where surveillance will work – both in and outside of a vehicle, if necessary. Generally, PIs don’t want to park their vehicle in the same spot every day over the course of several days. This may attract a lot of unwanted attention. When possible, find a couple of different vantage points to switch between. Some PIs also have the ability to switch between vehicles to avoid suspicion, which could be helpful, too.
How Do I Get Out Carefully and Smoothly?
Keep an eye on streets and turns that will allow you to easily drive out of an area if necessary. PIs often want the ability to quickly tail someone leaving a home or move away to avoid suspicion – and they want to do it without attracting too much attention. It’s always a good idea to review maps of the area, but when first arriving make note of the most practical ways to drive away, make a quick turn out of a neighborhood, and so on.
The Right Surveillance Techniques
With a little preparation beforehand, it’s easy to avoid accidentally breaking laws and ruining investigations. The right surveillance techniques will help you gather evidence like photos and documents without getting into any trouble. Keep these questions in mind, and it will soon become second nature. If you have any questions about the specific laws in your area or how courts tend to view specific actions, don’t hesitate to arrange a consultation with a local attorney who specializes in criminal law.