Private Investigators Photo by mari lezhava on Unsplash
Photo by mari lezhava on Unsplash

Private investigators often play heroes in suspense films, mystery novels, and other crime-oriented fiction. While these stories may make for great literature, they don’t always line up with the facts. What do private investigators really do? They don’t all go around in deerstalkers with pipes. They aren’t even allowed to do many of the things actors portray on television. If they did, they’d land in jail. So, what’s real and what’s just fantasy? We’ve compiled a list of some of the most pervasive private investigator myths and separated the facts from the fiction.

Fiction: Private Investigators Can Make Arrests

Crime shows love to show the steeled PI swaggering around with handcuffs and a badge, just like a cop. Private investigators in the US, however, cannot make arrests any more than an ordinary citizen can. They do not have the authority of a police detective. Their job is to investigate a case rather than enforce the law. Only someone tasked with enforcement, such as a police officer, can make an official arrest. In certain circumstances, and the private investigator may be able to make a citizen’s arrest, something any US citizen can do. However, this right is a very archaic practice. It also comes with a lot of potential liability. For this reason, private investigators or other citizens don’t usually practice it.

Fiction: Private Investigators Can Enter a Suspect’s House without Permission

Hollywood likes to up the drama at the cost of reality. Lots of television detectives break into places they shouldn’t, in order to find critical evidence to solve the case. In real life, that is called trespassing. In some cases, it counts as breaking and entering. Private property is strictly defined and protected under both federal and state laws. In some states, a private investigator may enter private property with the owner’s consent. Observation is an important part of many investigations, however. To stay on the right side of the law, private investigators monitor suspicious activity from a distance. The PI stays on public property or private property they have permission to enter. Long photographic lenses are a staple of the profession for a reason.

Fiction: Private Investigators Are Just Like Police Detectives

We’ve already established that private investigators are not police detectives. Police detectives take an oath and follow strict regulations. When they’re on duty, they enjoy certain privileges that regular citizens do not. They also abide by more rules and lose some of their civil rights. For example, an on-duty police officer doesn’t enjoy the same right to privacy that a regular citizen has. However, police are the only people authorized to make arrests, and they can breach private property if they have a warrant. A private investigator cannot do any of these things. Although private investigators need licensing to prove their reputability and potentially support police, they never have the power of a sworn keeper of the peace.

Fact: Private Investigators Participate in Ongoing Investigations

It’s typically considered a fact that PIs participate in ongoing investigations because police often choose to cooperate with private investigators for mutual benefit. However, that does not mean police are required to share sensitive information. Think of the private investigator as a consultant. They aren’t police, but they may work with the police.

Cooperation between police and private investigators is pretty common. PIs have helped solve a number of cold cases, and they can only do this with the help and support of local law enforcement. The police also hire private investigators from time to time when they’re low on manpower. No matter how dedicated and well-funded a precinct may be, there will be times they simply cannot handle the amount of work demanded of them. This pressure is one of the leading causes of cold cases.

Fact: Private Investigators Help Defendants in Court

The fact that PIs help defendants in court is one of the few Hollywood tropes that mimics real life. Although testimony and evidence private investigators provide rarely has the same drama as a television series, PIs frequently work with defense teams. Defense attorneys are trained in the law, not in investigation techniques. Many hire private investigators to gather or review evidence on behalf of their client. Due to the way the legal system works, police have a natural bias for the prosecution. Suspects only face charges when prosecutors decide the police have gathered enough evidence, after all, and even if you are innocent, the police want to believe they caught the perpetrator. Bringing in a private investigator to support the defense’s inquiries is a smart move.

Private investigators may not lead the swashbuckling lives the movies suggest, but that doesn’t mean everything is a lie. A PI can help in court cases, and private investigators really do work with police. If you need someone to make an arrest, call the police. If you need someone to get to the truth, call a private investigator.