Can Private Investigators Break the Law?


No. Private investigators can do many cool things – with their ability to unearth information that alters the direction of a case being the coolest – but Hollywood movies have severely over dramatised what powers they have and how much of the law they’re subjected to (Hint: it’s all of law). Bottom line? Private investigators can’t break the law, primarily because no one is above the law. But if the popularity of this question is anything to go by, there needs to be a detailed examination of why they can’t break the law.

First, private investigators, regardless of how cool their licenses and gadgets look, are private citizens offering private services. Some states may grant them broader powers than others, but never on the same level as actual law enforcement agents.

Second, no one is allowed to break the law. Even police officers whose job descriptions may require breaking the law need to do so with the permission of their superior, and it has to be as a result of exigent circumstances. Private investigative firms that make unfounded claims about how much of the law they can break are either trying to scam you or are amateurs who don’t really know what they’re doing because – most states don’t require private investigators to be licensed. Hence private investigators that break the law will find themselves in jail.

It isn’t uncommon in movies and books to see private investigators detain and sometimes even interrogate criminals – which in real life is considered kidnapping. True, some states allow ordinary citizens to detain criminals, but the circumstances are entirely different when the person goes out of their way to apprehend the criminal. Refer to Truth Private Investigator to learn more about how private detectives ought to behave. In line with not breaking the law, here are specific actions that would constitute breaking the law.

What Private Investigators Can and Can’t Do

– They can’t legally make an arrest. As private citizens, PI’s are obligated to contact law enforcement when they witness a crime, instead of trying to apprehend the offender. Arresting another person institutes impersonation of a law enforcement agent, and this is against the law.

– They can follow people. As long as they’re in a public space, private investigators can observe a subject and take notes or recordings of what the subject’s doing. Stakeout is about the only stereotype the movies got right.

– They can’t trespass. Though surveillance on public property is allowed, following the subject to private property is against the law. The loophole in this is unless the person being followed co-owns the property with another person, and the co-owner gives the private investigator their consent to enter their property.

– They can’t hack into phones or mails. This concerns the private property of another citizen, so private investigators aren’t legally allowed to wiretap or intercept mails. Any evidence gotten through this will be inadmissible in court, and could land the PI in jail.

– They can work with law enforcement. Yes, Sherlock Holmes got it right. Law enforcement agents do sometimes work with private investigators, but only after they’ve gone over all the evidence available to them.