Doing your own investigations – Top 10 laws to be aware of


Individuals considering performing their own investigation should always make themselves aware of the various laws which cover activities related to their case. Professional licensed private investigators who perform these activities are attentive to laws, regulations, and statutes surrounding their duties to ensure that the clients liability is protected.

A few areas where individuals get into trouble when attempting to perform investigations are as follows:

1. Pretexting – Using a false pretense to get information may be allowed in some instances, but there are restrictions on the use of certain information with severe penalties for violators. Federal law prohibits obtaining personal information using pretexting, with penalties including felony prosecution.

2. Trespassing – Entering private property without permission can be illegal in many cases. Even if the trespass was not on the subjects property, evidence such as video can be excluded if it can be proven that the photographer was on some other private property without permission when filming.

3. Two party recording notice – Audio recording of voice  may require the consent of all parties to the conversation. Various states may have statutory provisions that recordings have one party notice, and others necessitate all parties agreeing to being recorded.

4. Image recording – Photo or video recording may be allowed, but there are restrictions on recording where the person has an expectation of privacy. For example, it may be illegal to photograph a person in their bathroom even if the window is open. In addition, using magnification or enhancement of images can be illegal if the persons location is remote and they believed that their distance prevented viewing with the naked eye.

5. Audio enhancement – Audio can be monitored without recording, but there may be limitations on enhancing the sound using a parabolic dish or laser mike. Listening to sounds not audible to the human ear without assistance might be illegal.

6. Stalking – It is very easy for “surveillance” to turn into stalking especially when performed by a non-licensed person. The typical scenario is when a spouse follows their partner to gather information or an employer observes a worker. The subject can sue or even prosecute for harassment or stalking. If the pursuit is without a legitimate purpose or for intimidation the liability can be extreme. A person can also get into trouble if they break any other laws while doing surveillance. A person can even document their own speeding or running a red light if not careful.

7. GPS tracking – Individuals can get into big trouble monitoring of a persons movements using GPS. It used to be legal if the person placing the GPS had ownership or legal interest in the vehicle, but recent cases have shown that an amateur investigator can still run into trouble if the driver of the car does not have knowledge of being tracked.

8. Computer hacking or monitoring – Placing a keylogger or activity monitor on a PC or smartphone has to follow strict guidelines. If the activity being recorded includes sensitive or personal information such as emails or form submissions, the observer can be liable.

9. Reveal investigation – Licensed investigators cannot legally reveal the information in their cases except to their client. An unlicensed individual does not have this protection, so that all of their activities and information gathered is open for discovery.

10. Firearms – Since investigative activities can place a subject in more dangerous scenarios, many licensed investigators carry firearms while on duty. This requires a license in addition to the investigator license, and even beyond the standard CCW or civilian pistol permit issued by some states. A private individual performing unlicensed activities has to choose between being unarmed while performing potentially dangerous activities, or illegally carrying a weapon. A civilian CCW license is likely going to be deemed invalid if the person was doing any type of investigative activities.

There are hundreds of laws which need to be taken into account. Local ordinances and state statutes are specific to the geographic area. Fedeal laws such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) covers many types of uses of personal information. The Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) protects the use of information such as license info, license plates, driving records, and VIN numbers. The Graham Leach Bliley Act (GLB) prohibits many types of pretexting and use of personal info.

Knowledge of these laws is important to keep any activities from becoming a lawsuit or even criminal arrest. In the best case scenario any information gathered would not be able to be used in any court setting, and the credibility of the do-it-yourself investigator would be harmed.

There are some areas where a person can do their own investigations such as looking up information online, researching Facebook activity, or making a few phone calls. In any case, be sure to keep good records and notes of dates, times, and details. Any other documentation of the activities is recommended.

Custody and visitation investigations


The well being of minor children is difficult to manage when the other parent is estranged or contentiously divorced. Controlling dangerous access and harmful influence to minor children. Issues to consider for a child’s well being run a large range from being properly seat belted when driving, to correct nutrition, to being exposed to inappropriate behavior such as narcotics use, excessive drinking, and sexual activity. The concerned parent cannot be present for each visitation or custodial time period. Parental care and attention during visitation is critical to a healthy development of the child. Recognizing any deficiency as soon as possible can reduce these effects.

Monitoring of the contact with the questionable parent can have excellent results. We have seen examples of a parent shirking their allowed visitation to gamble at casinos, visit prostitutes, or attend trivial functions. We have also seen parents with their children present engage in activities such as nude intimacy with their new partner, using drugs, and driving under the influence. We once observed a parent traveling at over 100 MPH with both of his children in the back seat of the vehicle. Having documentation of these events was the first step in eliminating their influence on the children.

Documentation of these activities can allow for the concerned parent to obtain a more restrictive visitation, or even terminate visitation. The court ordered agreement granting custodial or visitation rights for the questionable parent will have other directives in the language. There may be requirements to foster a particular religious faith, or to not speak disparagingly about the other parent in the presence of the child.

A professional investigation starts with an analysis of the original custodial agreement to determine what the underlying rules were intended.

Observation documents safe driving, demeanor towards children, and whether children are left in the care of others during the visitation. Are there any unsafe conditions at the locations the child is being kept? The investigation pursues the background of the parents associates. Do any roommates have criminal backgrounds? Is the questionable parent involved with any relationship, business, or friendship with subjects of a dubious nature.

  • Aggressive attitude towards child
  • Insulting or berating child
  • Corporal punishment
  • Taking child to inappropriate locations
  • Exposing child to danger or excessive risk
  • Allowing involvement with bad influences, friends
  • Improper care of child’s needs
  • Insufficient supervision of child
  • Breaking requirements of custodial agreement
  • Documenting whereabouts during visitation
  • Identifying activities of questionable parent during non-custodial time
  • Verifying income and business activities
  • Investigating criminal records of associates, and even the subject
  • Testing for the presence of narcotics
  • Incorrect medication of the child

In some cases where visitation has gone awry, the non-custodial parent has taken the child and not returned. Careful case management is crucial in these scenarios. Immediate locating of the subject is urgent, but without making the person aware they have been found. Identifying the current location and daily habits of the subject provides intelligence to be used in creating a plan to recover the child. If the plan requires the involvement of law enforcement the timing must be precise. In many jurisdictions it is difficult to obtain police assistance unless a specific time and place can be provided. If the subject is a no-show the police may not be able to remain on-scene, and future requests might not be taken as serious. Central management of intel when a child is parental abducted or missing is critical to locating and recovering the child safely.

Good documentation of activities and treatment of the child is also valuable for court actions. Judges are hesitant to make significant changes to visitation or custody agreements without verifiable and serious evidence that the well being of a child is in jeopardy. For good or bad, the courts are skeptical of claims made by a parent that the other one is doing bad things. Presenting clear and irrefutable documentation makes it easier for a judge to see the harm being done to a child by the other parent.

The harm to a child need not come in the form of serious physical injury. Of course, prevention of these risks is important. However, exposure to toxic psychological environments or non-supportive households can have just as much negative influence on a child’s life.

Documenting custodial issues should be taken seriously. Although it sounds self serving for an investigator to say so, it is clearly better for a parent not to try and do this on their own. Following and observing a subject can turn into a criminal stalking charge if not handled correctly. Also, evidence obtained may not be as usable in a court setting (if at all) if it is created by the opposing parent. In most states, activities involving determining the habits, movements, whereabouts, or activities of any other person are referred to as “licensed activities.” This means that anyone performing these, or determining the character and reputation of another requires a professional license for investigations. Doing this without a license can subject the person to prosecution at worst, or discrediting the results at best. Following another person or doing surveillance can also place an untrained individual at risk due to being distracted while driving, or being in a dangerous environment.

A professional investigator experienced in domestic and family cases understands the unique nature of protecting the best interests of a child, and works with the parent to provide high standards of results to support their needs.