Surveilling homes and residential areas is more common than ever today. Even PIs that don’t generally handle domestic cases are finding more reasons to investigate local houses. We noticed an uptick during the COVID years, especially when so many people worked from home, and employers wanted some of them investigated on work hours.
Whatever the case behind it, PIs need to know how to navigate a residential area. That includes avoiding legal problems and even potential arrest for breaking the law. Here’s what private investigators should know before they head out.
Private vs. Public Road
Many residential areas are gated communities, which pride themselves on privacy and deterrents for burglars or strangers. These pose an interesting challenge for private investigators, even if the gates are “open” (which they often are).
In states like California, laws make it clear that public roads cannot be barred in any way just because locals feel like doing it. To get around these restrictions, gated residential developments register all their roads as private, owned by the community collectively or through another body. PIs are limited to what they can do on a private road, and trying to surveil on these streets raises the risk of being kicked out of the community or even arrested for trespassing.
What’s a PI to do in these situations? The best option is to contact the owner of the community streets, whether it’s a governing body, trust, or other entity. Explain your case, and ask for written permission to conduct surveillance for a case in that neighborhood. Communities may not want a private investigator around, but they also won’t want the kind of issues that leads to a private investigator in the first place. If your client lives in the community, your argument may be stronger for getting written permission.
Of course, PIs can still get into trouble in more private communities, even with written permission. There’s no magic wand that tells everyone it’s okay for you to be there. But it does strengthen your argument and can help prevent an arrest if someone calls the cops.
Are There Exceptions for Private Communities?
Do PIs have any special cases where they don’t need to ask for permission in residential areas? If the community isn’t gated and protected, the roads probably aren’t private (although you can usually check at a local title office or other organization). While you can’t walk up on someone’s lawn without risking trespassing problems, you should be able to surveil from the streetside. Other notable exceptions include:
- HOA (Homeowners Association) Investigations: HOA investigations are not uncommon: Many HOAs want to gather evidence before pursuing legal action against an owner. In these cases, HOAs may be authorized to give PIs permission to surveil homes from the street. If the HOA has hired a lawyer as part of the case, make sure to speak with the lawyer about the details before accepting the job. HOAs aren’t always cognizant of the limits of their authority.
- Landlord Investigations: This situation is rare in fully gated communities, but more common in other residential areas that have been approved for rentals. If a landlord wants to gather information about tenant behavior or possible illegal activity, they can give you permission to surveil the property and even cross onto the property without trespassing. Again, it’s important that you get this in writing, so you have documentation.
Remember the Right to Privacy
In all residential surveillance, remember the right to privacy. While trespassing and recording laws can vary between states and even court interpretation, courts are very likely to respect the general right to privacy. In other words, PIs can’t spy and record people where they have an expectation of privacy – they can get into trouble, and their evidence probably won’t be useful in court.
This problem includes many movie-style surveillance jobs like taking pictures of someone inside their own home or in their backyard. Avoid this when you can, even if you’re in a public spot. You can gather evidence of when and how people are leaving their homes or who is meeting them at their homes. This type of evidence is typically legal and can be used to help employers or spouses prove certain actions.
Seeking Permission from Owners
Remember, you can also seek explicit permission from an owner if they hire you. This can make it easier to legally search through trash, for example, or even access a shared computer – actions that are often illegal without permission. If a home has security cams or a doorbell cam, you can also ask for footage from the owner to see who is coming and going. Just remember to avoid tampering with mail in mailboxes or on doorsteps – that’s a federal offense and could land you with serious problems later on.
Surveilling With the Right Approach
Surveilling residential areas is possible, but preparation is key. PIs should always look for issues like private streets, gated communities, and the right to privacy when planning a job near a residential home. With the right approach and written permission whenever possible, a private investigator is ready to surveil without worrying about legal risks.