FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
They are the stuff of legends; subjects of romance and heroes of the silver screen glorified by the likes of Hercule Poirot, Magnum, P.I. and the legendary Sherlock Holmes.
In the days when the public was distrustful of uniformed police officers and agencies, and the expense of starting up brand new police departments was cost prohibitive for most governments, industrious private citizens saw an opportunity to fill in the gap by providing services that police were too busy, too legally constrained, or simply too underfunded to provide.
A private investigator (often abbreviated to P.I. and informally called a private eye, or private detective) is a person, licensed by the state (or in many states) who can be hired by clients which may consist of attorneys, insurance companies, businesses, government agencies and private citizens to take on investigative work. They are a discrete and disinterested third party who offer services to find facts and analyze information about legal, financial, and personal matters, verify people's backgrounds, find missing persons, investigating crimes and reporting and testifying for clients.
What is the Difference between a P.I. and a police officer?
Whether it’s to catch a cheating spouse, uncover embezzlement or simply track down a loved one, P.I.s can collect seemingly impossible to gather information and produce an entire file full of valuable information.
However, private investigators have different authority than police officers. There are some things police officers can do that private investigators can’t. However, there are advantages to hiring a P.I.
The biggest difference is that a P.I. works for you. You’re paying the private investigator to work for you, so they’ll make your investigation a priority. Police have a lot to do, so they may not have the time or resources to work your case with the urgency or time constraints you need.
What Legal Authority Does a Private Investigator Have?
Since private investigators are not the same thing as police officers in most places, they usually don’t have the same legal authority as police. For example, while a private investigator could place a person under citizen’s arrest if they see a felony crime in progress, they couldn’t place a person under arrest in the same way a police officer could. They do not give legal advice.
Just like you, they have the power to make a Citizen’s Arrest.
Additionally, in some areas, a person needs to be professionally involved in law enforcement in order to carry a firearm. This means some private investigators won’t be able to carry a gun with them while they conduct investigations. In Oregon, there are both concealed carry and open carry options which must adhere to the laws of Oregon and surrounding states.
Finally, the police have the ability to obtain search warrants to tap phone lines, search premises and more even without the consent of the person being searched. In many cases, a P.I. is legally limited in what they are allowed to search and how they conduct investigations.
Does a Private Investigator Have to be a former police officer?
You may have heard that many private eyes are former police, and that is true in many cases. In fact, many people retire from their careers as police detectives and go into private investigation. That’s because a career in law enforcement helps them understand the laws and procedures for conducting an investigation.
There are many benefits to having a career in law enforcement before becoming a private investigator:
• Familiarity with local laws
• Friends and connections in the local law enforcement agency
• An understanding of the legal process
• Knowledge of good detective techniques and investigation procedures
• Access to resources normal individuals may not know about
However, though many P.I.s spent years working as police, it is not a requirement that private investigators have police experience. Any person can become licensed to act as a private investigator in most areas (though local laws may dictate otherwise).
To learn about the requirements of becoming a P.I. in Oregon, you can visit the Oregon Department of Public Standards and Safety page which provides those requirements. They also provide a list of currently licensed P.I.s in Oregon.
Do Private Investigators Need to be Licensed?
Depending on local laws, private eyes may need to obtain a license before they begin conducting investigations. However, this varies by location.
In some places, anyone can begin investigating cases for others as a Private Investigator. There isn’t any process to becoming an “official” or government recognized P.I. It is recommended a person become very familiar with local laws and restrictions on what non-police civilians are legally allowed to do during investigations to avoid accidentally breaking laws and getting into trouble (and potentially revealing client secrets).
However, in other places, private investigators must obtain a license in order to begin practicing. The process of obtaining a license will vary by location, so check with local laws before opening up your own private investigation firm. Oregon requires P.I.s to be licensed.
Finally, as previously mentioned, some local government agencies use the term private investigator and police investigator interchangeably, so calling yourself a private investigator could potentially be impersonating a law enforcement officer - pretty big crime.
Police officers, on the other hand, already have the legal authority they need to conduct investigations, so they don’t need additional licensing.
Can I Conduct My Own Private Investigation, or Do I Have to Hire Someone?
Whether or not you can conduct your own private investigation would depend on two basic factors:
• Local laws
• The type of methods you’ll use to investigate
If the laws in your city, province, state or county prevent normal citizens from conducting investigations, you’re obviously out of luck and need to hire someone. However, if there aren’t any restrictions in place, you’re free to investigate using legal methods.
The way you actually go about conducting your investigation affects whether or not you can investigate something yourself. Some forms of surveillance and information gathering are limited only to P.I.s. Others are restricted even from private eyes and allowed only by police officers.
Breaking into a house or building to collect information, for example, is illegal for everyday citizens. However, a police officer with the right warrant can freely enter a premises to conduct an investigation.