The private investigation industry has come a long way from its early establishment in the mid-19th century to where it is today. The use of PIs among the legal and insurance community is now commonplace and the services performed are often just another specialized tool in the attorney’s tool belt. Whereas the services of a private investigator are not meant as an outright replacement for some of the tasks performed by a paralegal, the two jobs often complement one another in fulfilling the needs of a strategic legal plan. Whether it’s locating and identifying witnesses, performing background and due diligence on financial transactions or verifying alleged injuries on claims matters, private investigators offer a unique set of skills that, when used effectively, can play a significant role in a successful case resolution.
Today’s private investigator is often college educated, very well professionally networked and technologically adept in the information business. There are three primary reasons why attorneys continually seek the services of a private investigator in support of their cases.
Private investigators do things that attorneys choose not to do. Occasionally, when a potential witness needs to be interviewed, it is better that the preliminary contact and interview be made by an outside investigator. This first contact helps to establish the direct benefit of the witness testimony without making the attorney or paralegal a potential witness themselves. This discretionary tactic becomes useful if the person being interviewed provides information that could be detrimental to the case and the attorney decides against its introduction. Investigators are also utilized as a buffer between the law firm and other sources such as confidential informants or independent information brokers until the decision is made as to the benefit of the information provided.
Private investigators do things that attorneys are unable to do. Most states, including Utah, require some sort of professional licensing for private investigators. This license not only provides a verifiable background reference for the investigator, but also allows investigators subscription access to certain proprietary databases including driver’s license records, motor vehicle records and various credit header databases. Surveillance is often a very useful tool in developing information on cases ranging from domestic matters to personal injury defense and is rarely handled directly by the law firm employees. As we live in a society driven by the impact of video, direct evidentiary information, legally obtained during surveillance, can significantly benefit a jury’s perception of critical elements in the case. Investigators utilize nondescript vehicles, have covert video recording capabilities and are experienced in operating discreetly.
An outside investigation offers an independent, objective reporting that can be used to support litigation. The functions of a private investigator as compared to those of a paralegal are often similar in nature. Both have the ability to conduct basic research, interview witnesses and compile evidentiary information. Paralegals often base their research on items that directly support litigation with a focus on direct relevance to the case. Experienced investigators frequently offer a unique perspective view and are accustomed to thinking outside of the box in their approach to assisting on a case. The independent nature of the private investigator, coupled with the direct field experience, often gives the attorney an outsider’s perspective on case elements and provide avenues which may not initially have been considered.
Although not always designated as expert witnesses, private investigators nonetheless provide independent witness testimony of evidence accumulated that is free of any bias that may be inferred with a law firm employee. Most investigators are, by law, held to a higher standard in not only the reporting of information, but also in protecting the confidentiality of the casework. Unlike the attorney-client privilege which extends only to communications between the two parties, the work-product doctrine covers a greater scope of protection of information. When a private investigator is contracted, the information obtained directly relating to the case (such as witness statements, videotape evidence and background details) will typically fall under this protection from discovery by opposing counsel. This allows the attorney a great amount of leeway in deciding what information to introduce.
Nowadays, private investigators make exhaustive use of Internet research and databases, integrated case management software and professional resources cultivated through years of experience in the industry. In the recent years, social media has opened up an entirely new avenue for private investigators to develop and gather intelligence about individuals and businesses. Although the covert element in developing information is still the prevalent in much of the investigative work (as in sub-rosa claims investigations), today’s investigator is a business professional who can support the information developed with credible, well-planned testimony. Although technology is of great benefit in the industry, the foundations of today’s PI will always be rooted in basic fieldwork and pounding the pavement. Steve Ketter