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Is It Illegal To Hire A Private Investigator?


Is It Legal or Illegal To Hire a Private Investigator

Is it illegal to hire a private investigator? The straight answer to that question is NO, it’s not illegal. You or anyone can hire a private investigator and it's as legal as you would hire a lawyer.

But the question regarding legalities raises other questions that need to be addressed. The questions are not so much about the legal hiring of a private investigator in itself, but the activities that are undertaken once you have hired one. Yes, it is legal to hire a private investigator, but why you want to hire one and how the investigation is conducted will decide whether or not there are illegalities involved.

Any investigator with a moral compass will not engage in questionable activities. They will tell you straight if what you are asking them to do breaks the law; and if serious, may consider informing the authorities. However, if your request does cross the fine line and tips the balance slightly, a trained investigator can sometimes use his or her experience and knowledge to find an alternative legal solution.

What Legal Powers Does A Private Investigator Have?

First, it is important to note that a private investigator does not have any additional powers than that of any ordinary citizen. A private investigator, even if they do have a license to legally practice the profession (depending on what state or country the work is done), does not have the same legal powers as those given to a police officer. This is an important point to make, so you know that when you decide to hire an investigator you are asking an ordinary citizen to investigate something for you. Now this doesn’t mean there aren’t methods and even laws a private investigator can use in the course of the investigation, there are.

There are laws that can be utilized. There are laws that any private investigator (or citizen) can use, if you know what they are and the procedures. And knowing about these laws and how to use them is where a private investigator’s professional training and experience comes into play. This is why you should use one rather than attempt to do your own investigation.

A private investigator knows (or should know) the legal barriers and procedures to enable an efficient and legal investigation of a case. He or she has the advantage of knowing what is legal and illegal, and uses this to benefit their clients' cases. Also, lawyers hire private investigators and so an investigator usually has contacts within the legal profession, such as a lawyer or attorney, to obtain legal advice from if needed.

What Constitutes The Legal Or Illegal Hiring Of A Private Investigator?

As said before, it’s not the actual hiring that is classed as illegal, it’s the intentions and actions concerning a case that are classed as legal or illegal. It’s worthwhile to know that a private investigator actually covers many fields in the course of investigative work and could be categorized into two main areas, which can also be broken down even further. These two areas are:

  • Civil Investigations
  • Criminal Investigations


Most countries recognize these two aspects - civil and criminal - as being separate, with each having their own sets of laws, rules and procedures. Civil Law and Criminal Law - depending on what your case involves will decide which category and what laws, rules and procedures dictate the investigation. Usually, a private investigator will be involved in Civil matters such as matrimonial investigations, working for businesses, insurance companies, law firms, etc. Criminal investigations, especially serious crime, will usually be investigated by police. This doesn’t mean however that private investigators don’t investigate serious crimes, they do.

Another aspect is that laws differ from country to country and State to State on such things as interception of communications, obtaining records, etc. A New York private investigator will have similar but different laws to follow than that of an Arizona private investigator.

Examples Of Illegally Hiring A Private Investigator

Violating the law can alow someone to sue you for hiring the private investigator. These are a few examples that can land a private investigator (and possibly you) in hot water:

  • Wanting to physically harm or injure someone.
  • Obtaining information illegally – e.g., phone or financial records.
  • Breach of privacy, human rights laws.
  • Trespassing on someone’s property.
  • Tampering with someone's mail.
  • Hacking into a computer.
  • Wiretapping or bugging a private apartment, unknown to the owner.

As long as a private investigator carries out thorough due-diligence checks before taking on a case, he cannot reasonably be held accountable for being misled; i.e. being hired to find someone such as a “long lost sister” only to later discover the “long lost sister” was in fact a runaway battered wife that is now in hospital, or worse, in a morgue.

Ignorance of the law and ignorance of what you are asking a private investigator to do is no excuse or defense when it comes to illegal and questionable requests. If you knowingly mislead one, or employ the services of an unscrupulous private investigator, asking them to perform illegal activities, then expect to get burnt. Always hire one that, as far as you are aware, is of a decent and moral character.

Building a list of good questions to ask the private investigator can help you steer clear of a minefield of suspect investigators. And if you do detect a hint of unsavory, unethical behavior, terminate his or her services immediately and look for another.

What About The Legal Aspects Of Hiring A Private Investigator?

So, the last section was a pretty negative view which may have put you off hiring an investigator, but be rest assured, there is a positive side to hiring one that is legally beneficial.

Yes, there are laws and rules, but these laws and rules can be used to help with an investigation. For example; using FOI (Freedom of Information) laws to request information legitimately, or using laws that allow an ordinary citizen to make a citizen’s arrest and detain someone suspected of, in the process of, or, who is known to have carried out a criminal offense.

The success of an investigation case and keeping it legal is about knowledge of the law and using it sincerely. There are many very skilled, ethical and dedicated private detectives out there that use their skills, their knowledge and dedication to help their clients win cases.

The legal side of hiring a private investigator rests on the client’s intentions and the reasons for hiring a private investigator in the first place, and what they intend to do with any information discovered. Keeping it legal also depends on what the investigator’s character is like, their knowledge of the law, their experience, and their tenacity in finding out information legitimately - without cutting corners.

To keep things legal is a two-way street, with both client and investigator being honest with each other and working through any problems together.

Things To Remember About Legally Hiring A Private Investigator

If there is anything to understand and take away from this article, to make sure you stay on the right side of the law, it would be these points:

  • It is NOT illegal to hire a private investigator.
  • A private investigator has no special legal powers than that of an ordinary citizen.
  • Do not knowingly deceive or ask a private investigator to do something illegal.
  • Do not hire a private investigator that you know breaks the law.
  • If you later find out you have hired an unscrupulous PI, terminate their services and find another.
  • Work with your private investigator to resolve your case legally.
  • Illegal acts can harm you and your case, particularly if court action is later intended where evidence needs to be produced.

Hopefully you have gained some answers here about the legal and illegal side of using a private investigator. If you want to hire one, you can search our private investigator directory.

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