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.