Private Investigators and Surveillance: Where to Draw the Line

Surveillance is at the heart of any private investigator’s profession. The legitimate service these professionals provide, however, may include a number of gray areas – areas that could affect the industry as a whole.

For example, a Denver, Colorado, private investigator was arrested and charged with stalking in 2010 after it was discovered that he put a tracking device in a woman’s car. The private investigator admitted he was following the woman on behalf of her estranged husband because of a child custody dispute.

The charges, however, weren’t specific to the GPS tracking device the private investigator placed on the woman’s car. The charges against the Denver private investigator were brought after the woman told prosecutors at the Weld County district attorney’s office that he caused her to suffer from “severe emotional stress” as a result of the investigator’s surveillance.

The stalking charge was brought about under a subsection of the stalking statute, which states that people violate the law if they repeatedly place a person under surveillance or make any form of communication that would cause a person to suffer “serious emotional distress.”

This wasn’t the first time a private investigator was charged with stalking, however, as a Concord, New Hampshire, private investigator was charged with stalking a woman in 2005. It was discovered that the man who hired the private investigator had previously assaulted her.

State law, although it allows licensed investigators to conduct surveillance, also protects victims from their abusers by prohibiting alleged abusers from contacting their victims. And contacting victims—even through a third party—constitutes contacting in the eyes of New Hampshire law.

Although both of these cases are complicated ones, with nuances in the law being disputed, it speaks to the need for private investigators to fully understand their state laws before performing any type of surveillance.

Many states have strict licensing legislation that clearly identifies the parameters of surveillance by private investigators. However, even those states that do not license private investigators have laws regarding the practice of private investigators; therefore, professionals in the private investigation industry must make understanding their state laws a priority.