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The short answer is “no” — private investigators do not have police powers and, in most cases, private investigators do not have any more power than the average citizen.

There are, however, some investigators who like to flash their old badges or flash a concealed handgun, but leaving anyone with the mistaken impression that you are law enforcement is illegal. In fact, in most states, it is illegal for a private investigator to carry a badge, wear a uniform, or use any logo that could imply that the investigator is a state or federal official.

Private investigators do not have the legal right to go onto private property without an owner’s consent, nor do they have the ability to obtain bank records, email records, or phone records; they also cannot tamper with mail, wiretap a phone without consent, or obtain information or data through illegal means.

So…what does a private investigator do?

A private investigator is typically hired by businesses, law firms, or individuals to obtain specific fact-based information to help them make more informed decisions. Investigators help clients find facts, identify risks, provide peace of mind, and see the big picture.

How do private investigators find information?

Investigators use a variety of sources, including public records, investigative databases, court records, government repositories, surveillance, and human intelligence to obtain information about individuals.

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13 replies
  1. Andre
    Andre says:

    Here in Maryland badges are legal to wear and carry. In fact a larger one for display and a second, smaller one for your billfold with state issued Private Detective certification card. I find that people accept the badge and are very willing to give info from the streets and from suits. The police also give Profesional courtesy and will shoot the crap with you – this opens many doors for info exchange and a long term relationship. We have many federal agents in Md who also are welcoming to our profession. Not to bring up a sore subject, but most P.Is of color when seen with the badge displayed next to gun (s), policeapproach softer pending the area of state and or neighborhood. Unfortunately given the recent history it mention is necessary and is helpful. Badge approval comes from the Maryland State Police after request and design approval.

  2. Jake Huber
    Jake Huber says:

    I was a licensed private investigator in the 80’s for a few years before becoming a police officer in south Florida. As a PI I worked for a lawyer who would send me on various assignments. The funny thing was, I was asked multiple times by people when I would knock on their door to interview them etc. “Can I see your badge?” Now keep in mind I had already identified myself as a PI and in no way was pretending to be a PO. So after a while I purchased a PI badge and put my License number on it (it came with State seal of Fla). I would show it and people would then talk freely or even just open their doors. Just a story I’d thought I share.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Thanks for the comment Jake. I am not sure what the licensing requirements are in Florida, but in many states, it’s not legal for a private investigator to carry a badge. Things may have changed since then.

  3. FemPI
    FemPI says:

    Badges aren’t necessary but I find myself a collector of tools and gadget. I don’t need a gopro to do my job but there may be a time when it comes in handy and I want to have it. Better to have it and not use it than to need it and not have it.

  4. Michael Belk
    Michael Belk says:

    Brian, I bet there are some P.I.’s getting away with illegal things that most of the public is not aware of.

    It sounds like a P.I. is pretty much like most citizens who can investigate a good situation.

    I did not know all the facts. thanks

  5. Anonymous PI
    Anonymous PI says:

    Badges are a bad idea.

    The reason being that a badge conveys a sense of authority, or implies statutory powers, that the bearer just does not possess. Plus it just makes you look like a douche.

  6. Private Investigator Austin
    Private Investigator Austin says:

    I own a private investigator agency in Austin. I will not hire anybody that comes across as a police type. I specifically look for persons who look and act like ordinary people. I particularly like persons with social work experience, maybe in a forensic setting but not potential employees who’s sole experience is in law enforcement. But of course that’s me and I know other agencies are looking for a law enforcement type background in an employee. We deal with domestic issues and so I’m looking for a particular kind of person. LOL, I also look for folks who can take a picture in low light settings. Although, we do not have any police powers as private investigators, we do have a skill set that a lot of people don’t posses. Such as how the court system works, how to take good pictures and videos particularly at night, how not to get burned by a neighbor while on the job and most importantly, how to talk someone into giving you a piece of information that they would not be inclined to do otherwise. A big part of our job is creative problem-solving and it generally takes a good team of people with particular skills to work a difficult issue. In Texas we can have a badge identifying ourselves as private investigators. However, many years ago when I worked as a probation officer we all knew that a badge really means nothing but surprisingly some people will fold right away if you show them a badge – even certified law enforcement officers will tend to give you some leeway if you have a badge. As a private investigator now, I don’t carry a badge but my staff does and they tell me they could not do their job as well without one. Part of the problem in Texas, is that the PI Board issues a certification card that does not look very impressive – along the lines that anybody could make a certification card like they issue for real. On one occasion, I had a police officer stop me and I showed him my certification card and he did not believe it was real. LOL, I think he thought we should have badges – maybe it’s because people come to expect to see a badge from investigators in our kind of work. All I can say is: We don’t need no stinking badges to do our work.

      • Carol Villeneuve
        Carol Villeneuve says:

        Personally I don’t either. As a woman investigator , an old one at that :-) my personality and trusting appearance works well for me. One of my qualities is the ability to get people to talk me about anything and everything. The elderly are a wealth of information and because I’m a female and older one they find me as non threatening and talk freely. Many they want to stay in touch or say, anytime you need any other information feel free to call.

        • Brian Willingham
          Brian Willingham says:

          That’s a great approach Carol. I have always found that female investigators are fantastic at eliciting information from people – it’s just natural :).

    • Joe
      Joe says:

      Austin,
      If im not flashing a PI badge
      but I have one. Can I get in trouble
      for having it? Im not a PI

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