What are the legal limits which are placed on a private investigator?

video surveillance

You have a legal right to hire a private investigator. But your private investigator cannot do just anything for you. He or she must operate within the bounds of the law. You need to also be vigilant about what your private investigator can and cannot do legally.

Impersonation of Law Enforcement

Private investigators are not police officers and it is illegal for them to pretend to be with the police force. They are not allowed to affiliate themselves with the police either by carrying a badge, wearing a law enforcement uniform, or bearing a law enforcement logo. Private investigators cannot mislead a witness by lying about their affiliation with the police or other government agencies. In the same way, a private investigator should not try to arrest another individual under the color of law.

Wiretapping a Phone

Federal law does not allow private investigators to wiretap phone calls without the consent of at least one of the individuals on the line. There are also laws in 38 states that require 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 cannot enter onto the property of another person since state or local laws prohibit them from doing so. Moreover, breaking and entry are a violation of the law. Sometimes, the private investigator can get the permission from the owner of the property before entering it. This can happen, for instance, in divorce cases when both spouses still reside at the home.

Running License Plate Numbers

Ordinarily, a private investigator must have a legally justifiable reason to run a person’s license plate. This may include investigative purposes or in order to be used in a court proceeding in the future. Running a check on a person’s license plate will provide a variety of information including who owns a vehicle and that individual’s address.

Mail Tampering

It is a federal offense for someone to open, destroy, or damage another individual’s mail in order to find out about their personal business or to prevent 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 obtain without consent or without having a subpoena that will provide him or her with

access to the information. This information includes bank accounts, financial records, or phone records.

This directive applies to the following types of information:

Financial Accounts

Private investigators can gain information about which bank the subject has opened the account. But they cannot collect information like account balance, bank transfer records, bank statements, etc., without the subject’s consent or a subpoena.

Credit Information

Private investigators can access court documents and criminal records because they are a public record, but there are a few caveats. For instance, federal laws prohibit the dissemination of a person’s private credit information. Therefore, a private investigator must first have a signed authorization or waiver from the subject of the inquiry to obtain their credit report. Additionally, the investigator must have a “permissible” business purpose in order to run the check in the first place.

Criminal Records

Private investigators can do background criminal checks to reveal offenses that have been committed in the past. However, some criminal records are sealed and only accessible to law enforcement officers, court personnel and other restricted individuals. Private investigators do not have any special powers to access such records.

Phone Records

Laws are very restrictive when obtaining phone records. Private investigators do not have access to a person’s private phone records. But a private investigator can find out who the party’s carrier is or the person’s phone number. Private investigators cannot access detailed phone records absent a court order or subpoena, because they are protected by federal and state laws.

Other Prohibited Acts

There are other legal boundaries within which private investigators must operate. Private investigators are licensed by the state and they can lose their license, if they violate local, state or federal laws. Private investigators cannot harass, bully or intimidate a subject, use bribery, or engage in other deceitful means in order to obtain certain information. You also need to be vigilant about what your private investigator can and cannot do legally because information gathered illegally cannot be used in courts.
Contact Us today

If you would like more information on what we can do for your case, then please contact us and make an appointment. We will explain how we work and can serve you and what type of investigation you need. Give us, a private investigator in Sacramento, a call at (916) 865-8169.