What Can a Private Investigator Do? And What They Can't

Everyone has likely heard of the term 'private investigator,' but it's not surprising if they don't fully know the deal with P.I.s. The bottom line is a private investigator is "a person not a member of a police force, who is licensed to do detective work (such as investigation of suspected wrongdoing or searching for missing persons."

That's a mouthful of words and probably leaves you confused. Kendall Investigations conducts private investigations but do you really know what those entail? It can be a complicated world, and private investigators must work within the law's confines.

So, what exactly can a P.I. do? And, what are they not permitted to do?

What Are Private Investigators Allowed to Do?

Kendall Investigations and other detective agencies across the U.S. help clients with a laundry list of requests. They range from the straightforward (such as employment verification) to the messy (including divorce, infidelity, and custody battles).

Working with not just individuals but businesses and attorneys all falls under the realm of the private investigation field.

Some examples of precisely what P.I.s can do include -

  • Background checks. This is a universal one that can apply to both individuals and businesses. There are many reasons why someone would need to know a person's background. A company may hire people trusted with confidential information, and the employer wants to know they're hiring a genuine, trustworthy individual. Or, when considering your child's safety tops your list of priorities and you need to know you can trust the person watching your child while you're away, you may want a background check.
  • Insurance investigations. When the thought of insurance crosses your mind, do your eyes glaze over since this can be a complex topic? Some detectives offer services investigating insurance fraud, including Kendall Investigations. This is a topic that the general public isn't equipped to conduct appropriate investigations themselves. Surveillance, records review, and interview work are undertaken to gain a complete picture of various insurance claims (including workers comp, home, car, and life insurance policies.
  • Polygraph exams. This service needs to be conducted by highly-trained professionals. Ken Shull, with Kendall Investigations, knows the ropes on this one. Ken is the only one in the U.S. with a Master's Degree in Polygraph. He's an expert at properly administering the tests and delivers reliable, accurate results. Whether you need to prove your innocence or dig into infidelity accusations, a polygraph exam will help you arrive at answers.
  • Civil investigations. Detectives gather trial evidence for clients involved in civil trials to prepare for court. Research for civil cases includes not just domestic surveillance but also workers comp, asset searches, and even missing person cases.
  • Domestic investigations. Not all investigators participate in this one, but Kendall Investigations offers robust services under this category. A broad range of issues falls under domestic investigations, including divorce, drug abuse, infidelity, abuse, and child custody. When dealing with such serious matters, having a private investigator work the case can help secure the necessary information to determine the next plan of action.

What Can't a Private Investigator Do?

The seemingly endless list of what a P.I. can do illustrates how valuable their service could be to a person or business. The above list is only the tip of the iceberg. But, there are rules that private investigators must follow. And, there are things that a P.I. is not permitted to do. Disregarding these rules could land that detective in a world of legal trouble.

  • Impersonate a law enforcement officer. Remember, if you're working with a place such as Kendall Investigations, you're engaging with a private business, not a legal entity. A private investigator must be upfront with those they're interviewing or working with and disclose they are not part of law enforcement.
  • Make arrests. Since a P.I. is not part of law enforcement, they can't take matters into their own hands and attempt to make an arrest, regardless of the situation. That's to be left to law enforcement agencies.
  • Trespass. Though investigations may include surveillance, that does NOT include trespassing on someone's property. PIs are private citizens, and the same rules apply to them as to anyone else.
  • Wiretapping. Though investigations aim to arrive at the truth and dig into what's happening, wiretapping is not necessarily allowed. Check with your local laws on this one, or talk to Kendall Investigations, or your hired detective, to determine what's allowed. In some jurisdictions, it's entirely out of the question, while in others, it may depend on if one party agrees.

Private investigators must pass exams and obtain licensing to run their businesses, and there's a reason for that. They serve as experts in the detective field and must know and abide by the local and governmental laws of what's permissible.

Private investigators offer a wealth of services and help their clients arrive at the desperately desired truth. Knowing precisely what a private investigator can and cannot do will help you make an informed decision if you ever come across the need for one.

Uncover the truth!


Ken Shull served as a Special Agent with the FBI for almost 25 years and was head of the FBI Polygraph program until his retirement in 2001. At that time he set up the Kendall Investigations practice as a private investigator in Knoxville, TN offering Polygraph services, private investigations, and security guards. Ken is a member of the American Polygraph Association and The American Association of Police Polygraphists.

The Truth is Still the Truth Even if No One Believes it, A Lie is Still a Lie Even if Everyone Believes it.