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Are Private Investigators Permitted to Cross State Lines When Conducting an Investigation?

Recently, a New York–based private investigator reached out to me about conducting surveillance in a neighboring state in which he was not licensed.

So, here was the question (edited for clarity):

I am licensed in New York state as a private investigator. If there is a case that is “venued” in New York state, and the person moves to any other state, am I allowed to conduct surveillance in the other state, as long as the case is initiated in New York state?

The person was injured in New York state and there is ongoing litigation in New York state. The person recently moved to New Jersey. An attorney who I am working with is questioning the legality of initiating a surveillance in New Jersey with someone who is not licensed in New Jersey.

I have some top attorney firms that send me out of state for work, and they all say it’s legal. I can’t find a statute that says that I can work in New Jersey.

I don’t do any surveillance work, and I don’t pretend to be qualified enough to answer legal questions. But doing work in other states does come up quite a bit with fellow investigators, and my answer is pretty clear-cut: My understanding is that if you started a surveillance in New York (where the case originated) and the person drove into New Jersey, you are always OK.

When I say OK, I mean that this was not a typical situation; the person happened to drive into a neighboring state. You don’t need to stop doing surveillance because you are not licensed in that state. I don’t think any court of law is going to throw out the evidence because you happened to be driving through a state in which you were not licensed. Likewise, you will be hard-pressed to find any licensing body sanctioning someone for temporarily traveling through their state.

But if you are starting a surveillance in New Jersey, you need to be licensed in New Jersey—not necessarily where the case was filed or venued.

Each state’s licensing board wants to make sure that everyone who is operating in the state has a license and acts within the bounds of the law. It also helps protect the local private investigators from out-of-state competition.

What’s the risk if you do operate in another state?

To be perfectly frank, if you are operating in another state without a license, there is also not a whole lot of risk involved. Like I said, I have never heard of a licensing body sanctioning a firm for operating out of state. Also, there is very little enforcement going on within state regulatory bodies.

For God’s sake, absolutely nothing has been done to Black Cube, which operated in New York and all over the country on behalf of Harvey Weinstein with some extraordinarily shady and illegal tactics. And what about, in fact, the licensed private investigator who was doing the shady/illegal stuff for Black Cube? He still has an ACTIVE private investigator license and has not been sanctioned, according to a few of my sources.

BUT (there is a big BUT there), if whatever you are collecting may end up in court and may end up getting thrown out because it would not be collected by a licensed professional, you might want to think twice.

I realize that this answer may be different depending on which part of the country you are living in. For example, some states have reciprocity laws, in which you can enter a neighboring state as long as it’s temporary. As far as I am aware, there is no reciprocity agreement between New York and New Jersey.

Because I was not completely satisfied with my own answer, I reached out to a few New York–licensed private investigators, who also happen to be attorneys, who added some excellent points.

Most legal practitioners know little about private investigator licensing

In the original question, the private investigator pointed out that he works with some top attorney firms that have sent the investigator out of state and that employ lawyers who say it is legal. On that point, your typical legal practitioner knows little about private investigator licensing. David Boies of Boies Schiller Flexner, who at the time was one of the top lawyers in the country, hired the firm Black Cube for Harvey Weinstein. Not only was Black Cube doing all kinds of unethical things, but it was sending operatives all around the United States, to places where they do not have offices, let alone any licensing. 

As an attorney, if it was a case that could potentially go forward in either state, I would also want to be sure I had someone licensed in each state. The risk seems pretty minimal in most cases, but it really only takes one bad situation for it to come back and bite you in the a$$.

State statutes will probably not be helpful

State statutes relating to private investigator licensing typically will have some language that requires you to have a private investigator license if you are conducting/engaging in investigative services for a fee in that particular state. So, in this case, if you are in the act of conducting or engaging in investigative services for a fee in that particular state, you need to be licensed. I don’t think you will find a specific state statute that says, “You can’t come into New Jersey if you are licensed in New York.”

Case law

There is, perhaps, some case law that will support crossing state lines, but I am not aware of any. If anyone in the investigative community knows of any, please let me know.

What if you need to cross state lines?

First, I would check the local state reciprocity agreements, as well as local licensing. For example, North Carolina has limited reciprocal agreements with seven states and California has reciprocity agreements with five states, but in California you have to fill out a form and notify the state. New York, as far as I know, does not have any reciprocity agreements.

Many investigative firms will hire a local investigator in the local jurisdiction, and have one of the investigators from out of state tag along. This offers protection with regard to local licensing laws. This would typically be in a situation in which you needed to conduct interviews, especially in cases with some complexity, and for which getting a local investigator up-to-speed would be difficult. Or cases in which the investigator from out-of-state has some institutional knowledge of a case that might be hard to replicate.

Having said all of this, I don’t think that crossing state lines in every situation requires you to jump through hoops and to get a license. For example, if I am going to pick up some court records in Connecticut, doing some historical news media research in a library in New Jersey or dropping off a request to a police station in Pennsylvania, I am all set; I personally would not be worried about being licensed in that state in any of these scenarios.

But, if at any point in your out-of-state work you are considering doing interviews, surveillance, witness canvassing, scene photographs, “door knocks,” or any other activities that would be considered (or even may be considered) under the private investigator law (I am thinking of things like computer forensics) in a state in which you are not licensed, especially for a case that may end up in a court of law, I would be sure to consult with an attorney.

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8 replies
  1. Matt
    Matt says:

    I ran into this a few years back on a judgment recovery case where I wanted to garnish the debtor’s wages. My debtor lived in Connecticut but worked in New York but I didn’t know where. My intention was to follow him from his home to work but I wasn’t sure if I could go into CT and surveil him since I’m not licensed there. I ended up speaking to the CT State Police Detective who is in charge of PI licensing for CT and the answer was unequivocally, “no”. By sitting in front of this guy’s house, I would be conducting an investigation and therefore would need to be licensed in CT. He had run into a case where some retired cops turned PI’s from the NYPD were doing something similar and the judge in the case threw out their work as they were unlicensed in CT. In my case I was able to figure out where the debtor worked without having to hire a CT PI thankfully, but it is a hassle when living near the border of multiple states. Could I have done it and probably no one would have been the wiser? Sure. But, first, I think it would be highly unethical and even more so after I had a direct answer from the licensing authority. Second, what if someone calls the PD for the suspicious looking guy with NY plates hanging around their neighborhood? Am I going to start lying to the police about why I am there? I was a cop for a long time, cops don’t like to be lied to. (Although they should always expect to be lied to and welcome it, but that’s a story for another time) I kind of landed on the same level you did. If I had to go into CT to pick up an accident report, or file a FOIL request, or some other action that Joe Citizen could do, I would do it, with my defense being that any unlicensed citizen could do the same. Anything beyond that, I would get a CT PI to do it and probably tag along as you mentioned.

  2. Scott Ross
    Scott Ross says:

    In my experience it varies from state to state. California acknowledges out side licensing but only up to 30 days, and that’s not clear if it’s 30 days total annual or 30 days in a row. When I was in PA for a trial, I had to get a license there because of time and the court advised the atty I would need a license if I was going to participate. There are some states that I found do not accept licensing from some states like Tennessee. No idea why.

  3. Paul Jaeb
    Paul Jaeb says:

    Brian, this topic is a frequent one, particularly within state associations. My rule has always been that if we are on the ground in another state we must have a local PI with us. It wouldn’t take a savvy lawyer all that long to question the legality of the evidence. But, beyond all that, I was always terrified that my insurer wouldn’t cover a loss if the claim was created in a state in which we were unlicensed. I’d rather fight regulators or lawyers than an insurer!

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