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What Are the Legal Limitations for Private Detectives?

Private detectives are not police officers; this is one important distinction that people must know. Private detectives are essentially ordinary, everyday citizens with certification to practice private detection with a license in the state they operate. Some of these private detectives work for firms or run their own agency. Moreover, many private detectives have been in law enforcement or are retired police officers themselves. They might undergo routine investigations, like staking out a cheating spouse or finding a missing relative, but they might also collaborate with the local police department on more extreme cases, like homicide and cold cases. However, it is crucial to understand the legal limitations of private detectives.

The first limitation is that private detectives cannot make a legal arrest. In most cases, because they are private citizens, they have to leave the arrests up to law enforcement officers. There might be some rare and extenuating circumstances, like a combative suspect or if someone’s life is in danger. This type of arrest is known as a citizen’s arrest. Another exception to this rule is if the private detective sees a suspect committing a federal offense. Either way, it is rare for a private detective to make any kind of arrest whatsoever; they will usually leave that up to the police.

The next limitation is that private detectives cannot tap your phone. In almost every state, people must give their explicit consent to have their phones tapped. A private detective could be committing the federal crime of illegal wire-tapping if they are caught doing this. If there is probably cause, the private investigator could enlist the help of the police and even then they must obtain a warrant to tap someone’s phone.

You might have seen this in the movies, but private investigators cannot just barge into your home. In fact, private investigators can’t enter someone else’s domicile whatsoever. This is considered trespassing and in some cases breaking and entering, which is illegal. If they are caught doing this it is a felony crime and can lead to at least a year in prison. Again, they must work with the police to obtain a warrant if there is probable cause.

Private investigators are also not allowed to impersonate police officers. This is considered a felony as well – a serious one at that. In some cases, a private investigator might wear a badge or present a badge, but this can be considered impersonating a police officer, because they are indicating that they might be associated with some form of law enforcement. If a plain clothed officer presents you with a badge make sure to see some other forms of identification, because they could be impersonating a police officer.

Lastly, don’t believe everything the movies tell you. Most of the things that private investigators get away with in the movies are actually extremely illegal in real life. Some other things they can’t do: open your mail, which is another federal crime, and they also can’t run a license plate without probable cause. In the end, a private investigator is just another citizen, albeit a vigilante one out for common justice, but where they might be able to catch a cheating spouse in the act, it might be harder for them to intervene in more serious investigations without the collaboration of local authorities. If you are interested in hiring a private investigator, trycriminal investigation services from