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Can Private Investigators Be Sued? Understanding the Legal and Ethical Landmines

A gavel resting on a wooden block with a pen on a desk, indicating a legal setting.
A gavel resting on a wooden block with a pen on a desk, indicating a legal setting.

Judicial Decision-Making: The Gavel’s Verdict

Navigating the intricate maze of legality and ethics is a daily challenge for private investigators (PIs). Even when an investigator believes they are operating within the confines of the law, the specter of lawsuits is always present. This article explores several noteworthy cases and ethical dilemmas to underscore the precarious landscape that modern private investigators must traverse.

The Illusion of Legal Safety: Reno Mayo Ms. Scheive vs. 5 Alpha Industries

In Nevada, a case emerged that underscores the legal risks for private investigators using GPS tracking technology. Despite the act being ostensibly legal in the state, the private investigator involved found himself facing multiple legal challenges.

The Subpoena and Accountability

The court granted subpoenas to help identify the individual or entity that commissioned the surveillance. This action was taken in response to a GPS device found on the vehicle of a significant public figure who had recently been re-elected for her third term as mayor. The legal scrutiny the investigation firm and its lead investigator are under, even while the identity of their client remains undisclosed, highlights the intricate layers of accountability in the private investigation industry. This complexity should serve as a caution to investigators who assume strict legal compliance is enough to shield them from litigation.

The Allegations and Emotional Toll

The mayor discovered the GPS device during a routine mechanical check-up and is now seeking legal remedies for several charges, including invasion of privacy, trespassing, civil conspiracy, and negligence, as well as compensation for attorney’s costs. Beyond these legal implications, the case brings to light the severe psychological stress imposed on those being investigated, adding an ethical dimension that private investigators must consider. In fact, the psychological repercussions further emphasize the risks of assuming that being compliant with the law is sufficient protection from lawsuits.

Crossing Ethical Lines: The Rise of “Dirty DUIs”

Close-up of the rear side of a police vehicle with its red tail light illuminated and the word 'POLICE' reflected on its side.

On Patrol: The Gleaming Guardian

Origins and Operations

Christopher Butler of Private Investigations Inc. gained notoriety for a groundbreaking yet contentious practice called “Dirty DUIs.” Clients contract the firm to monitor an individual’s alcohol consumption with the primary objective of catching them intoxicated while driving. The very existence of such specialized operations underscores the critical need for ethical discernment in the private investigative industry.

The Mechanics of a “Dirty DUI” Operation

Leveraging Butler’s connections in bars and restaurants, the team orchestrates situations where the target is encouraged to consume alcohol. Once the individual appears inebriated and opts to drive, a team member contacts law enforcement to apprehend them. This direct and swift communication with police, often through personal cell phones, ensures timely action but also navigates a precarious line between legality and morality.

Application in Legal Cases

Such tactics have been particularly effective in divorce or child custody proceedings where individual credibility is crucial. The evidence of reckless behavior, like driving under the influence, can significantly influence the outcome of legal cases. However, the intent behind these operations often discredits someone in a legal dispute rather than protecting public safety, making it evident that mere legal compliance is not enough to ward off scrutiny and potential litigation.

The Gray Areas: Ethics and Legality

While reporting a drunk driver is technically legal, the practice of covertly encouraging someone to drink and then facilitating their arrest calls into question the ethics of such an investigation. This complexity showcases that the private investigative industry is fraught with scenarios where legal compliance may not shield from ethical critiques or even legal repercussions.

Coordinated Sting Operations

What sets these operations apart is their complexity and coordination. Using Butler’s contacts and insiders within bars, the team orchestrates a situation where the individual is encouraged to drink excessively. The team then coordinates with law enforcement—sometimes directly via personal cell phones—to apprehend the individual for driving under the influence.

The Potency in Legal Battles

These tactics have proven to be particularly effective in divorce or child custody cases, where an individual’s credibility can make or break the outcome. But it raises serious questions about ethical boundaries.

Exploring Legal and Ethical Dimensions: Aksu Hasan & Mitchel Katz vs. Contra Costa County

The intricacies of the law often present difficult challenges for private investigators, as evidenced by the case of Aksu Hasan & Mitchel Katz vs. Contra Costa County. This complex legal battle not only questioned the ethical practices involved but also put to the test the very fabric of the legal definitions surrounding DUIs.

The Genesis of the Lawsuit

In a situation that one attorney described as “unique and unlikely to be duplicated,” Aksu Hasan and Mitchel Katz found themselves entangled in an elaborate scheme. The case claimed that Contra Costa County sheriff’s officer Stephen Tanabe collaborated with private investigator Christopher Butler to set up a DUI sting. This was allegedly orchestrated to give an advantage to Katz’s ex-wife in divorce proceedings.

The Legal Quandary

While reporting a drunk driver may be within the confines of the law, this case ventured into a gray area by facilitating and actively encouraging the individuals to drink excessively. The act of then coordinating their arrest with the police raises a plethora of ethical and legal questions. Could this be deemed a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment? What does this mean for private investigators who find themselves navigating such morally complex landscapes?

The Resolution and Its Implications

The case eventually settled for $600,000, with Aksu receiving $260,000 and Katz $340,000. This wasn’t just a monetary settlement; it was an apology, signaling a recognition of the ethical and potentially legal lines that had been crossed. It also serves as a warning to professionals in the field, underlining the complexities that can arise even when actions may initially appear lawful.

Uncharted Territory

What sets this case apart from others is its longevity and complexity, having been described as the most challenging case in a 25-year career by the attorney who represented the plaintiffs. It prompts private investigators to ponder the depths of ethical conduct and civil rights, serving as a cautionary tale and learning point for the industry.

The Risk of Retaliation: Counter-Suits and Legal Challenges

A judge's gavel rests on a desk beside a pair of scales, with the judge's interlocked hands in the foreground.

A Moment of Deliberation in the Halls of Justice

In a recent, unnamed case with details restricted due to ongoing litigation, a PI was assigned to tail an individual suspected of falsely claiming injuries. After capturing footage of the subject teaching yoga on a paddleboard, the subject counter-sued for trespassing, presumably as a tactic to recoup legal expenses.

A Cautionary Tale from Los Angeles: The Complexity of Client Relationships

Another intriguing legal predicament involves a private investigator based in Los Angeles who finds himself in a lawsuit despite delivering what many would describe as exemplary service. The complexity of the situation is compounded by the fact that the client, and the client’s girlfriend, appear to be pursuing legal action for reasons that are not entirely transparent.

The Current Status of the Case

Due to the ongoing nature of this legal proceeding, specific details cannot be disclosed at this time. However, it is important to note that the investigator plans to share all pertinent legal documents acquired during the discovery and deposition phases once the case is dismissed. The intent is to shed light on the real motives behind the lawsuit and to absolve the investigator of any wrongdoing.

The Implications for the Private Investigative Industry

This pending case serves as a stark reminder that even when a private investigator adheres to high professional standards, there is still a risk of becoming entangled in legal disputes. The factors contributing to this risk often go beyond the quality of the investigative work and may involve complicated interpersonal relationships and hidden agendas.

Staying One Step Ahead of Litigation

In the nuanced field of private investigation, merely sticking to what’s ‘legal’ isn’t a guarantee against litigation—sometimes even actions that are lawful can spark legal challenges that cost thousands. The landscape is not only legally complex but ethically so, demanding constant vigilance to both law and morality. Staying updated on shifting laws across jurisdictions and adopting proactive measures like rigorous risk assessments and thorough documentation are essential. They serve not just as best practices but as vital safeguards against the unpredictable risks of both litigation and ethical dilemmas.

Author Ken Childs with Paramount Investigative Services Inc.

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