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What Are the Legal Limitations for Private Investigators?

Contrary to what the movies, television, radio and any other form of media tells you, private detectives aren’t above the law. Movies are quick to promulgate the social fallacy that private investigators are a lawless bunch – snooping through people’s property, breaking into homes, tapping phones, or doing anything else that is highly illegal for a private citizen to do. Yes, private investigators are also private citizens and have to follow all the same rules as anyone else. In addition, with a private investigators license there comes even more rules of conduct so that you don’t abuse your power. Here are some of the legal limitations of private investigators.

For one, private investigators cannot go though someone’s person and confidential information. This could mean bank records or even criminal records. Private eyes don’t have magical access to information that isn’t public. This a huge myth that spreads the idea that private detectives are super sleuths that will do anything, by any means necessary to obtain the information they need. The only time that they might be able to access bank records is in the case of a cheating spouse and the bank account belongs to the suspicious party. Another case might be if a private detective is consulting on a police case. However, there are only a few exceptions.

Also, you can’t just start following someone. In laymen’s terms this is called stalking. You might be thinking: well, aren’t private detectives just hired stalkers? The answer is no. Anyone who suspects that they are being tailed or followed or even stalked can get a restraining order against the person following them. Following someone is difficult and it has to be done within the bounds of the law. Even if they work for a professional agency, like North American Investigations (, you still can’t “pursue someone” illegally.

Another big myth is that private investigators can flash a badge and force someone into a line of questioning. Again, a private investigator is not a police officer – not in the least. They might have a law background, but under most legal statutes, a private detective can only ask someone to talk – they can’t force them to. In the movies you might see a private detective grab someone by the lapels and coerce them to spill the beans, but this, again, could be considered assault and battery. It would just be another case of one citizen beating up another and it could even result in getting your license taken away.

Lastly, a private investigator has no legal right to break into someone’s home. Again, the movies are quick to characterize a private investigator as someone who circumvents the law, but picking someone’s lock and gaining access to their home could open up a number of charges against you: breaking and entering, tampering, illegal access, property damage and more. Not to mention, the property owner could come home and catch you – within legal bounds they have the right to protect themselves and you could end up getting hurt. If you are a private investigator it might be wise to look up what some of your legal limits are so that you don’t get yourself in trouble.

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