If you’re in need of a private investigator or find yourself contemplating the hiring of one, whether you’re a consumer, law firm, or attorney, this cautionary tale is essential reading. It serves as a stark example, highlighting the potential for enormous liabilities and even criminal repercussions if engaging with a private investigator is not approached with utmost care.
The Case of Surveillance Gone Awry
Let’s delve into a real-life case that unfolded within the realm of a personal injury lawsuit. Picture this: a car collision resulted in a lawsuit, with one party claiming compensation for injuries caused by the other. In a bid to ascertain the legitimacy of the injuries, the defendant, through their private investigator, initiated surveillance on the plaintiff. The intent was to validate the extent of the claimed injuries—standard practice in many legal scenarios involving personal injury, divorce, fraud, and more.
However, the seemingly routine surveillance took a disastrous turn. The private investigator, stationed in a car near the plaintiff’s residence, failed to ascertain property boundaries. Unbeknownst to them, they trespassed onto the plaintiff’s property, violating their privacy rights. The consequences? A lawsuit ensued, not just against the investigator but also targeting the insurance company, defense lawyers, the private investigative firm, and even the individual investigators.
The defendant claimed severe harm due to the investigator’s actions, demanding a staggering $13 billion in trespass and invasion of privacy claims. While the outcome remains uncertain, the case underscores the critical importance of conducting investigations within legal bounds.
Legal Responsibilities in Private Investigations
This case extends beyond mere surveillance—it’s a cautionary tale about the legal minefield private investigations can become if not handled meticulously. Whether you’re pulling records, conducting surveillance, or engaging in other investigative activities, the law must be navigated with precision.
1. Pretexting Pitfalls
One common illegal investigative tactic is pretexting. In a historical case from the early 2000s, a private investigator resorted to pretexting to discover a target’s bank details. They created a fake check, sent it to the target under the guise of a rebate, hoping the target would unknowingly reveal their bank information. This breach of privacy, known as pretexting, is illegal and can lead to serious legal consequences.
2. Unlawful Access to Records
Another legal landmine involves accessing records unlawfully. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act prohibits certain methods of obtaining information, including assets or background checks. Investigative methods that involve falsifying records, misrepresentation, or illegal access to sensitive information are strictly off-limits.
3. Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse
In the world of private investigations, ignorance of the law is not an acceptable defense. The responsibility lies not only with the investigator but also with the client. Engaging an investigator does not absolve the client of legal liability if the investigator conducts activities that breach the law.
Mitigating Risks: Choosing the Right Investigator
If you’re considering hiring a private investigator, whether for legal proceedings or personal matters, due diligence is paramount. Here’s how you can navigate the potential pitfalls:
1. Vet Investigative Processes
Ensure that the investigative firm you choose has a track record of adherence to legal and ethical standards. Some firms, like ours, specialize in specific areas, avoiding investigations outside their expertise to prevent legal mishaps.
2. Legal Awareness
Whether you’re a law firm, attorney, or civilian, familiarize yourself with the legalities surrounding private investigations. This awareness can help you discern between legal and illegal investigative methods.
3. Proactive Communication
Communicate openly with the investigator about the scope of the investigation and emphasize adherence to legal boundaries. A transparent relationship can prevent inadvertent legal missteps.
4. Specialized Expertise
Choose an investigator with expertise in the specific type of investigation you require. Surveillance, financial investigations, and background checks all have unique legal considerations, and a specialized investigator can navigate these complexities more effectively.
A Prudent Approach to Investigations
In the realm of private investigations, prudence is paramount. A seemingly innocuous investigative task can quickly escalate into legal jeopardy if not conducted within the bounds of the law. As a client, be proactive, stay informed, and choose your investigator wisely. Remember, ignorance of the law is no excuse—both investigators and clients must tread carefully to avoid falling into the legal pitfalls that can accompany private investigations.