When a Client Asks a Private Investigator to Do Something Illegal
It’s a common, media-driven misconception about private investigators: that they either can obtain private information or that they are willing to break the law in order to get it. Many people do not realize that there are laws surrounding audio and video surveillance, obtaining text message and phone records, accessing medical records, and using GPS trackers. Even less understand that these regulations can vary by state. In a recent discussion, investigators discussed the challenge in being asked to break the law by clients and whether it’s wise to a) Educate the client and continue working with them, b) Sever ties completely, or c) Try to find a way to legally obtain the information.
A number of points were raised, including the economical hardships some private investigators face, the negative effect this scenario can have on one’s reputation, and the public’s perception of members of the profession. Regardless, most investigators share that illegal requests are a common occurrence, largely due to media-based misconceptions, a misunderstanding of what is and is not legal, and, in some scenarios, the potential client looking to obtain the information by any means possible.
Firing or Refusing to Work With the client
Contributor Bruce Hamilton says if it’s actually against the law, it’s a no-brainer. “That’s illegal. We don’t do that,” he said. But Hamilton notes that it is a case-by-case decision of how to move forward. “If I’m not already completely put off by the idea of doing a job for someone who is okay with committing a crime and if I know of a legal way to get the info, I may suggest it.”
On the specific scenario of being asked to enter a home and obtain physical evidence, Robert and Andrea Orozco said, “Even if the investigator is allowed entry into the residence, perhaps for obtaining a statement, it doesn’t give the investigator the liberty to take anything from the residence without permission from the homeowner.” An earlier commenter shared that attorney clients have encouraged him to use his best judgment in these scenarios, to which the Orozcos reply, “Those types of clients should be avoided. We’ve fired many clients for many reasons, and unethical/illegal requests, particularly after being advised of such - is at the top of the list.” Darryl Daugherty, an investigator who works in Thailand, said that these people don’t become clients, but rather failed prospects.
Finding out what the client needs
Group member David Pelligrinelli says he likes to start out by finding out what their underlying need is. “Their strategy to take some illegal action is just one method they have thought up to solve their problem. There may be other legal methods to achieve the same goal,” he said. “By taking the time to understand their needs, we can often understand that the client isn’t necessarily intending on doing something illegal--they just want a particular solution or answer.” Brett Broderson, an investigator based in Nebraska, notes that it is important to clear up ambiguity in the language of their request and then, clarifying the client’s objective.
“Get a legal opinion and make record not only of the answer but also of the conversation and the original request of your client,” Broderson said, noting that every investigator should have an attorney on retainer for questions like this. “I, myself, tell them that I will not knowingly break the law under any circumstances, but that I will work with them to attempt to achieve the same objective in a legal manner, one that can stand up to the scrutiny,” he said. Broderson has been in business for nearly two decades and has never lost a client for this reason.
Educating the client
Remi Kalacyan, an investigator based in Canada, shares that most clients that start with illegal requests end up becoming clients. “Most clients don’t know that the request is illegal, so I take the time to explain that there is a legal way to get that information,” he said. Kalacyan says that the client will see that you are legitimate, knowledgeable, and are willing to guide them through the investigation. By educating the client, Kalacyan points out that this client will be much more likely to work with you than an investigator who just hangs up the phone.
New York investigator Gregory Myers believes that breaking the law is never worth sacrificing your reputation, integrity, license, and freedom, but he also believes there is an obligation to the client that must be fulfilled. “We as professional investigators have the obligation to make informed decisions and to advise the client properly,” he said. “If the client is not sure of the action but it appears to be questionable then you must advise the client and explain in detail.” Other investigators include clauses within their contracts that allow them to terminate an investigation if something knowingly illegal is requested. The educational path has been adopted by many. Paul Hawkes, based in London, said that at one point in time, when he received illegal requests he would simply tell the person that what they were requesting was illegal and hang up. He has since learned to ask more about the situation and why they are asking for illegal services. “Sometimes, but not on all occasions, once I have an understanding of what’s going on I am more able to offer a well thought out and legal alternative,” he said, and furthered that he passes on pointing out that the request is illegal.
Misconceptions and effects on the industry
New Zealand investigator Paul Kozlovski notes that there is a big difference between a client asking an investigator to break the law knowing that it is illegal and asking the investigator to do something they thought was legal. “There are far too many misconceptions as to what investigators actually do, or can do,” he explained.
“This is exactly why our industry needs to take active steps to rehabilitate our reputation in the public eye,” group member Shannon Tulloss said. She shares that 99% of the people who call her office have little-to-no knowledge of what investigators do aside from spying on people and pulling quick records. “No, I don’t wear a trench coat,” she says. “No, I don’t hide in the bushes. No, I don’t hack. Yes, I am highly trained. Yes, I have two degrees. Yes, I have an office, and yes, anything I produce for my clients will stand up to scrutiny since nothing that comes out of my office can be viewed as shady.”
Chicago-based Gilbert Jimenez says that because he performs investigations for private parties, under the right circumstances he will ask what they are looking to achieve and what they have in mind to achieve it. “Then I provide them with an education on what is legal--which I will do--and what is illegal--which I won’t do,” he said. “I will spend some time on this because I consider myself as running a service-oriented business and believe in delivering high quality customer service from the moment I pick up the telephone to answer their first call. I give them the initial benefit of the doubt as to ignorance of the law and watching too much TV.”
At a Glance: Advice From Investigators
Be known for your ethics and integrity. Otherwise you will lose your attorney clients as well.
Claire Cooper Black, Texas
With a little patience we can educate our clients and still get a case out of it . . . Clients will respect your knowledge and insight.
Kelly Cory, California
Your name and reputation are all you have. I will not jeopardize my business or my license for a few dollars.
Robert Rahn, New York
It’s simple. Just say no! Its not worth losing your livelihood and the license you worked hard to achieve, just to satisfy one unscrupulous client.
Steve Bellavigna, Florida
Most of the clients who start with an illegal request end up being my clients. . . Most don’t know that the request is illegal so I take the time to explain that there is a legal way to get that info by doing surveillance.
Remi Kalacyan, Canada
I try to find a legal way to get the info they want, but if that doesn't work I tell them to find a new investigator. No one client is worth risking my license for.
Patrick McPherson, Minnesota
I usually just explain that is illegal and I cannot do that. Then we discuss how we may obtain the information or need legally and if that does not work then I just refuse to work with that client. There are times when you need to turn a client down.
Anthony Bankhead, Georgia
I always tell them that if they want evidence to assist them in a trial, I could supply them with the most damning piece of evidence ever, but if it is not admissible in court, it really doesn't help the case. If it is obtained in a questionable manner, it could backfire on them in a really bad way. That slows down 90% of the folks.
William Reynolds, Missouri
From Hollywood-driven misconceptions to unscrupulous requests and ill intentions and even a plain lack of understanding and education, not every client who makes an illegal request knows that it is illegal. And while the decision of whether or not to break the law is clear, the question of how to handle an illegal request depends on the nature of the potential client’s request, the investigator’s experience and preference, and ultimately whether there is a legal route to obtaining that information.
One thing we can say for certain, however, is that there is no clear end in sight for investigators receiving illegal requests