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What Private Investigators Can and Can’t Do in Divorce Cases

Thu 16th Jun, 2022 Family Law

The thought of hiring a private investigator during a divorce is distasteful for many people. Yet for others, private investigators can provide a valuable service in times of need. For example, a father in a child custody battle might hire a private investigator to determine whether his ex-wife is providing a safe and healthy living environment for his child. Regardless of the reason for hiring them, private investigators are subject to certain limits on their behavior, but they do not always abide by those limits. If you think that a private investigator may be crossing a line, a Stockton divorce attorney can help you put a stop to it. 

Private Investigators Can: 

Conduct Surveillance 

Conducting surveillance is the bread and butter of a private investigator’s job. Private investigators generally are permitted to conduct surveillance of their subject, including taking photographs, in any public place where the subject might be. This includes following the subject to any public location he or she might visit. 

Locate and Interview Friends, Family, and Acquaintances 

Private investigators are permitted to locate and identify any friends, family, or acquaintances of either party to gather information regarding their habits, character, and whereabouts

Search the Subject’s Trash 

Trash is considered to be abandoned property, making it fair game for private investigators to search. However, the trash must be in a publicly accessible location like the curb or an alley dumpster. 


Private investigators generally are permitted to eavesdrop on their subjects in public places. For example, a private investigator could legally eavesdrop on a subject who was having a conversation in an adjacent booth in a restaurant. The investigator could not eavesdrop where the subject has an expectation of privacy, such as by listening to a conversation by pressing his ear to a closed door.  

Private Investigators Cannot: 


The general rules of premises liability apply to private investigators. They may conduct surveillance in public spaces, but may not trespass upon private property for any reason. If an investigator is asked to leave a residence or business, he must do so immediately.  

Impersonate a Public Official 

It is illegal for investigators to impersonate any public official, including a police officer, as doing so could create the impression that the witness was obligated to speak to the investigator. 

Impersonate the Subject to Access Records 

Certain private information is off-limits to private investigators, such as bank account numbers, phone records, and medical records, and it is illegal for private investigators to impersonate the subjects of their investigations to gain access to such records.  

Record Private Conversations 

California is a two-party consent state, meaning that wiretapping or otherwise recording private conversations is permissible only with the permission of all parties being recorded. Please note that this law applies only to confidential conversations. Private investigators are permitted to record conversations in public places where the subjects have no expectation of privacy. 

Search the Subject’s Mail 

While a private investigator may search the subject’s trash, the same is not true of the subject’s mail. Tampering with mail, including stealing, opening, or intercepting mail, is a federal offense punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine. 

Get Help from a Stockton Divorce Attorney

For more information about the limits of private investigations and what investigators can and cannot do, please contact a Stockton divorce attorney at McKinley, Conger, Jolley & Galarneau by using our online form or calling us at 209-477-8171.

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