What is a Private Eye, Anyway?

What Is a Private Eye, Anyway?

Dave Walker, Certified Professional Investigator

This article was originally posted in SDPA Precedent§; quarterly newsletter of the San Diego Paralegal Association.

Jim Rockford: “$200 a day, plus expenses.”

An attorney once told me, “I never used a private investigator because I never knew one.”  This is probably true for anyone who finds themselves in need of an investigator.  For most people, the term ‘private investigator’ conjures images of fictional television characters like Jim Rockford in the 70’s, Thomas Magnum in the 80’s or for the younger audience, Veronica Mars in 2004.

Set against the backdrop of exotic locations, these glamorous characters hunt down leads in action-packed storylines.  In reality, this is far from the truth.  Today’s investigator spends most of his or her time on a computer or telephone or sitting in a fixed position just watching a person or location.  The advent of the Internet has contributed to even more “desk work” as private investigators can conduct searches and obtain information on people online.

Television has also created the false expectation of what private investigators can accomplish.  Clients often expect an investigator to “tail” a person alone, get the entire life history of John Smith with no other personal identifiers or obtain information that is protected by state or federal law.  It is not uncommon for people to think we can secretly record conversations or ‘tap’ telephones.

B&P §22350(b)(4)

PI’s are not required to register as a Process Server

Many people ask, “What does a private investigator do?”  Simply put, a private investigator provides you information for a fee.  The stereotypical case may be a cheating spouse, but the range of requests for a private investigator is far greater.  Common investigative needs include background investigations, process service, asset searches, locate and interview witnesses,  conduct surveillance, personal injury or accident investigations, Workers’ Compensation fraud, child custody issues, and birth parent searches.  Corporate clients use private investigators for asset recovery and protection, fraud prevention and to uncover employee theft.

Often, private investigators develop an expertise including cell phone and computer forensics, financial investigations, accident reconstruction, product liability, arson investigations, ‘bug’ sweeps, polygraph examinations and document examination.

To facilitate the collection of information private investigators subscribe to data providers, often referred to as data brokers, like LexisNexis, TransUnion and IRBsearch.  Information from data providers frequently includes address history, property ownership, telephone subscriber information, judgements and liens, corporate affiliations, vehicle sightings and criminal history.  All information must be verified due to the potential for errors in the original data collection and entry.

There is no ‘one-stop shop’ for persons outside of law enforcement to locate criminal history on a person.  Private investigators research state and federal court records both online and in person.  Criminal history results must be verified by reviewing the actual documents from the court records.

A PI in Riverside County has a fully equipped surveillance vehicle that looks like it was designed for a movie.   


Private investigators may employ a variety of equipment to aid in the collection of information and evidence.  At a minimum, most investigators will have a basic camcorder or camera.  GPS tracking units, night vision cameras and body-worn cameras are examples of equipment that may be employed by a private investigator who specializes in surveillance.  Of course, if you can imagine it, there is probably a gadget for more covert needs.

Private Investigators Act

B&P §7520-7539

Private investigators in California are regulated by the Private Investigator Act.  Private investigators must possess a valid license issued by the California Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Security and Investigative Services.  The minimum requirements are three years (6000 hours) investigative experience and pass a two-hour written test.  After submitting to a background check and paying fees a license is issued with renewal required every two years.

You can verify a private investigator license at http://www.bsis.ca.gov/.

An exception to the license requirement applies to a person “who is employed exclusively and regularly by an employer in connection with the affairs of such employer only and where there exist an employer-employee relationship if that person at no time carries a deadly weapon.”  Examples of this exception would be an in-house investigator for a law firm or corporation and investigators employed by the public defender.

There are thousands of licensed private investigators in California.  More than 1200 are members of the California Association of Licensed Investigators (CALI).  CALI also allows membership to licensed investigators from other states and countries.

CALI membership creates the opportunity for a local investigator to have access, via a Listserv, to quality investigators and experts in other locations.  It is common for a local attorney or client to need an investigation in another city or state.  For example, you need witnesses located in Sacramento and Denver.  The investigator can provide a direct referral to an investigator in those locations or can sub-contract the investigators to assist in the case.

Consult with a private investigator any time you think their services may benefit your case.  The investigator may have solutions that were not previously considered.  Private investigators can work directly for the attorney or law firm, but in many situations they will contract with the individual client.

When the decision is made to hire the private investigator he or she will ask you to provide ALL of the pertinent information about the case.  It is normal for people to conduct some form of investigation on their own prior to actually hiring an investigator.  It is a waste of time and money to search for information already possessed by the client.

A private investigator cannot, and therefore, should never guarantee results.  You should be wary of anyone making promises for specific results.


B&P §7539

Unlike doctor-patient and attorney-client there is no specific privilege of confidentiality between you and your private investigator.

The law “prohibits the private investigator from divulging to any person, except as otherwise required by law, any information acquired by him or her except at the direction of the employer or client for whom the information is obtained.”The law does allow a private investigator to divulge “any information he or she may acquire as to any criminal offense to law enforcement or the District Attorney.”  A classic example is the person who attempted to hire an investigator to conduct a background investigation and locate a person to advance their stalking activities.

Private investigators can be of service in more ways you can think.   Have the contact information for at least one private investigator available and don’t hesitate to call them for a consultation or client referral.

I will leave you with this.  Adjusted for inflation, today Jim Rockford would charge $968 a day….plus expenses!


Dave Walker is a retired police detective, licensed private investigator in San Diego, owner of BCD Investigations and the current Governor of the San Diego District of the California Association of Licensed Investigators.  BCD Investigations is a Sustaining Member of the San Diego Paralegal Association.  Contact BCD Investigations at dave@bcdinv.com or (858) 602-6296.