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Top 3 Ethical Issues for PIs and How to Handle Them

  • May 12, 2010
  • by Allison Petty

It can be difficult to navigate the ethical minefield of private investigation in today's world. Evolving technologies have eradicated the days of gumshoe investigations, and a variety of state and federal laws can make it hard to know where the ethical and legal line is.

Houston attorney Clyde W. Burleson and Scott H. Belshaw, executive director of the University of North Texas Professional Development Institutes private investigations training program, have researched some key ethical issues for private investigators. interviewed them to get their take on some of the top problems PIs can face and how to handle them.

Violation of privacy rights

There are many ways to violate someone's privacy, and new technology is just making it easier.

To prove a violation of privacy, a person must show that his or her solitude or seclusion was violated in bad faith in a way that would offend the reasonable man. Violations of privacy could include hacking computers, placing cameras in hidden locations or using long-range cameras to take pictures through someone's window, intercepting mail, and obtaining information under false pretenses.

For instance, a credit agency can provide a persons credit report to someone who has a legitimate business interest. But private investigators must be careful not to lie about their intentions or misrepresent themselves when seeking credit reports. Obtaining a credit report under false pretenses is a federal offense.

Burleson said that information obtained illegally is not admissible in court, so it is useless to attorneys who hire PIs. Also, he said he would be likely to file a complaint against a PI he hired if he found that investigator doing something illegal to gather information.

The easiest way to avoid violating privacy is to conduct investigations from public viewpoints.

Lack of understanding criminal laws

It is important for private investigators to understand federal and state laws in order to make sure they are not breaking them. The thing is this: If it's illegal, it's unethical, Burleson said. PIs need to know the laws well enough to recall them when they have to make split-second decisions.

Adding complications, what is legal in one area might not be in another. For example, wiretapping laws vary between states. In Illinois, both parties in a conversation must be aware it is being recorded; in Texas, only one person's consent is needed. But everywhere, it is illegal to record a conversation when neither party knows it is being recorded something that is newly possible thanks to software that can crack cell phone signals and pick up conversations. As Burleson put it, "there's probably a hundred ways to Sunday actually to do that, but they're certainly going to get somebody sued."

Burleson said PIs need to be particularly familiar with the laws of the state in which they work. If you're not sure about what you can and can't do, then call an attorney in your jurisdiction to explain the rules to you so that you don't get yourself charged with a crime, he recommended.

Private investigators who break the law could not only face jail time but also suspension of their licenses (in states that regulate private investigators).

Lack of training in ethical decision-making

In some situations, private investigators have to make quick decisions, meaning they won't have time to consider all the angles. That's why it is important for PIs to receive ethical and legal training, Burleson said. If they don't have that knowledge up front when they make a quick decision, it could be the wrong one, he said.

While most states require private investigators to acquire continuing education hours in ethics training, Belshaw said that is not enough. He said more universities and colleges should offer training programs for private investigators, with attorneys teaching criminal law, and other instructors offering a background in privacy rights and ethics.

Belshaw also stressed the importance of mentors. He said he credits his own mentor with teaching him more than any academic program ever could, and recommended that all inexperienced PIs find someone who is successful in the field to help them along.

Also, he said, private investigators need to be more knowledgeable in electronic investigative tools now more than ever. He said the field has traded in magnifying glasses for GPS receivers and laptops, and PIs need to stay on top of the technology that is now a staple of their profession.

This article was written by Allison Petty

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