Is Using a Private Investigator Legal?
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Is Using a Private Investigator Legal?

The act of hiring a private investigator does not inherently violate any rules of law. However, there is certain conduct that private investigators cannot engage in or else they will be violating the law. Check with the private investigator that you are interested in retaining to ensure that he or she follows the law of your jurisdiction.

Impersonation of Law Enforcement

It is illegal for anyone to act as a law enforcement officer if he or she is not one. Therefore, most private investigators should not carry a badge, wear a law enforcement uniform, bear a law enforcement logo or otherwise indicate that they are a law enforcement officer. It is important that your private investigator follow this rule so that he or she does not mislead potential witnesses about his or her role in the case and any affiliation with a government agency. Likewise, a private investigator should not attempt to arrest another individual under the color of law. 

Wiretapping a Phone 

Federal law prohibits private investigators from wiretapping phone calls without the consent of at least one of the individuals on the line. Additionally, 38 states have state laws that say that at least one person on the call must give consent to the recording and the other 12 states require that both parties give their consent before the call can be legally recorded. 


Private investigators at times may have to enter onto the property of another person. However, state or local laws may prohibit the investigator from doing so. Additionally, the investigator cannot break and enter without violating the law. In many situations, the private investigator must have the permission from the owner of the property before entering it. This is more feasible in divorce cases when both spouses still reside in the home. 

Running License Plate Numbers

Ordinarily, a private investigator must have a valid legal reason in order to run a person’s license plate. This may include investigative purposes or in order to be utilized in a court proceeding in the future.

Mail Tampering

It is a federal offense for someone to tamper with, open or destroy another individual’s mail in order to pry into their personal business or to deter the individual from receiving his or her mail.

Gain Access to Protected Information

There are many forms of confidential information that a private investigator cannot access without first acquiring the investigated individual’s permission or without having a subpoena that will provide him or her with access to the information. This rule applies to the following types of information:

Financial Accounts

Even though private investigators can generally identify where a person does his or her banking, they do not usually have access to the specific information regarding the accounts. However, with a subpoena or the account holder’s permission, the private investigator may be able to legally access this information. 

Credit Information

Although a private investigator can access court documents and criminal records because they are a public record, federal laws prohibit the dissemination of a person’s private credit information. Therefore, a private investigator must first have the individual’s consent to run such a record. Additionally, the investigator needs a legal reason in order to run the check in the first place.

Criminal Records

Some criminal records will be sealed and only accessible to law enforcement officers, court personnel and other restricted individuals. This may be due to expungment laws or because the offense was committed while the individual was a juvenile. Private investigators do not have any special powers to unseal or otherwise access such records. 

Phone Records

Like information regarding financial accounts, private investigators do not have access to a person’s private phone records. However, the private investigator may be able to find out who the party’s carrier is or the person’s phone number. Phone records are protected by federal and state laws, so a private investigator cannot access this information absent a court order or subpoena to that effect.

Other Prohibited Acts

There are other rules that private investigators must follow. Many private investigators are specially licensed by the state and risk losing this privilege if they violate local, state or federal laws. This may include harassing a subject, using bribery, using pretext to access information or engaging in other deceitful means in order to obtain certain information. Check with your private investigator in order to ensure that both of you are following all applicable laws. Otherwise, you risk having certain information being excluded from introduction at court and other penalties.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.
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