Say Bob wants to know more about Jack, so he pays 'X' (service, company, or person) and they provide Bob will everything he asks for about the person, which could include private info (personal address(es), business address(es), etc.). Would Bob be in trouble with the law if caught doing this?

The exact action would be: paying an unlicensed person or service to investigate an individual, or otherwise provide information about them, such as home address, records, etc.

The person, company, or service is not a licensed investigative agency/law enforcement agency, but can otherwise find generally private info about people (like their home address(es), etc.), and Bob knowingly went to them since he had no valid reason to go to licensed detectives/police/etc.

Would this act alone be illegal for Bob if nothing further was commenced with such info in his trust?

  • 1
    What basis do you have to wonder whether such activities run afoul of any laws in the U.S.? The way this question is phrased sounds foreign to the American legal system, but you asked that it be tagged for U.S.
    – feetwet
    Mar 26, 2016 at 3:03
  • This would be a question of state law and would not have a single uniform answer for the entire United States.
    – ohwilleke
    May 17 at 3:19

2 Answers 2


Drawing on Washington state law, there is a law (RCW 18.165.150) that "any person who performs the functions and duties of a private investigator in this state without being licensed" has committed a gross misdemeanor. A "private investigator" is defined in RCW 18.165.010 as "a person who is licensed under this chapter and is employed by a private investigator agency for the purpose of investigation, escort or body guard services, or property loss prevention activities", which is not particularly helpful since it suggests that you can escape punishment by not being licensed. Looking beyond the ham-fisted wording, the legislative intent is clearer when we look at the definition of "Private investigator agency" is defined in terms of the business of

detecting, discovering, or revealing one or more of the following:

(a) Crime, criminals, or related information;

(b) The identity, habits, conduct, business, occupation, honesty, integrity, credibility, knowledge, trustworthiness, efficiency, loyalty, activity, movement, whereabouts, affiliations, associations, transactions, acts, reputation, or character of any person or thing;

(c) The location, disposition, or recovery of lost or stolen property;

(d) The cause or responsibility for fires, libels, losses, accidents, or damage or injury to persons or to property;

(e) Evidence to be used before a court, board, officer, or investigative committee;

(f) Detecting the presence of electronic eavesdropping devices; or

(g) The truth or falsity of a statement or representation.

We can take this to be a characterization of what a private investigator does, thus doing these things with a license is a misdemeanor. In other words, unlicensed finding stuff out about a person is prohibited by law, if you do this professionally. The state has asserted the power to regulate and license businesses. Note that even the collection of Googled information about a person would be discovering or revealing facts about a person (more disturbingly, academic research could easily constitute discovering the habits, activity, movement, or whereabouts of a thing).

However, there is no statute that penalizes a person for hiring an unlicensed PI (or, hiring an unlicensed contractor, etc.).


As for why private investigators are regulated, the number of regulated professions is stunning. Geologist?! I'm not aware of the specific political events that gave rise to this regulation, but as usual it was probably because someone did something bad and the legislature decided to expand its regulatory power to quiet the public outcry. A valid consideration is that they are often armed; it is possible that there are special dispensations where government agencies have to keep certain information from the public, but may provide that information to the police "or licensed private investigator" (this is just conjecture); or, persons and businesses may adopt privacy policies with exceptions for "legitimate investigations". I can't find a list of special powers of PIs.

I don't know of any challenges to the breadth of the law, which one could categorize as unclarity. I've never heard of an academic researcher being prosecuted for investigating the nature of a thing, so there probably isn't much case law that points to the legality of that absurd interpretation.

  • My goodness! I know that many states have similar laws (perhaps there's something like this in the MPC?). But as you said: As written this casts an unconscionably wide net. Has this (or similar) statute never been challenged? I'm left wondering if "Private Investigators" merely agree to the licensing process as a way of establishing bona fides with potential clients, rather than out of any fear of prosecution.
    – feetwet
    Jun 4, 2016 at 7:13
  • Also, (as I asked Patrick) if you can speculate as to why this "business" is or should be subject to license and regulation ... I am still baffled and would appreciate it, as I can't come up with a plausible pretext other than "cartel pressure," and I'm usually quite imaginative!
    – feetwet
    Jun 4, 2016 at 13:30
  • I'm very surprised that I can't hire someone with a metal detector to search my garden for a lost piece of jewellery. That's surely not an intended consequence of this legislation. Jan 25, 2019 at 18:12
  • This is a limitation on businesses, not on who you can hire. If I buy a metal detector and start a business of searching property for lost (metal) items, I would have to get a license and I might have to get a PI license. The DoL might decide that this isn't what the statute requires. If they decide against me, I might sue the Dept. to challenge their interpretation of the law, and my attorney would (on appeal) argue legislative intent at the state Supreme Court. I don't have plans to test this outcome: point is, legislation often has unintended consequences.
    – user6726
    Jan 25, 2019 at 18:47

I don't know what the rules are in the US but I strongly suspect they vary from State to State, so you'll need to pick a State to get a single answer.

In Victoria, Australia, to give you an example of how this is dealt with (which may satisfy your needs), a private investigator must be licensed under the Private Security Act 2004 (Vic).

It is an offence to provide services as an investigator without being licensed: Part 2 of the Act. Penalties include fines (defined in terms of 'penalty units'; one 'penalty unit' corresponds to a certain number of dollars which you can find by searching for 'Victoria penalty unit' on Google).

'Investigator' is defined in section 3 of the Act as:

any person who on behalf of any other person, is employed or retained—

(a) to obtain and furnish information as to the personal character or actions of any person or as to the character or nature of the business or occupation of any person; or

(b) to search for missing persons;

There are exceptions in section 4 for people who are not required to be licensed e.g. lawyers, accountants and employees making incidental inquiries on behalf of their employer (provided their employer is not themselves an investigator).

I am not aware of a specific offence provision that a customer such as Bob would commit. However, Bob would probably be regarded as having procured the commission of an offence by the unlicensed private investigator. If so, Bob is taken to have committed the investigator's offence and is liable to the same penalty. See the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic), sections 323 and 324.

Talking more generally, in any given jurisdiction of interest, you would be looking for the following:

  • Are the investigative services in question regulated?
    • That is, is there a regulatory regime for private investigators, private security, businesses that deal with personal information, etc? (You can look at your jurisdiction's statute book, or you can look at the websites for the police, department of justice, etc.)
    • Does the law provide for offences for contravention of the regulatory regime?
    • Who commits the offence? (In your jurisdiction, there might be a specific offence for paying for the services of an unlicensed investigator.)
  • What are that jurisdiction's rules about complicity i.e. aiding, abeting, counselling or procuring an offence?

Even more broadly, apart from regulatory regimes which would only be found in legislation, the common law and equity might affect the investigation, e.g. doctrines related to confidential information. However, in that area we would only be talking about injunctions or damages (possibly nominal damages) and not criminal offences, and this paragraph is mostly probably outside the scope of your interest.

There might also be some kind of privacy or data protection offence involved (i.e. thou shalt not obtain another person's personal information as part of a business without a good reason), but we don't have something like that in Victoria so I could only speculate on what other jurisdictions might have.

  • Can you offer any insight into why these services are or should be licensed and regulated?
    – feetwet
    Jun 4, 2016 at 2:10
  • 2
    I don't know. Honestly, when I went to answer this question I did not think they were. I thought I might find some kind of regime in the US that might allow a PI to access driver's licence records or something. To me, regulating PIs would have only made sense if the PIs had some kind of special powers. I can only speculate that there was some concern that unscrupulous characters in the industry had made intimidation part of how they obtained information and (actual intimidation being hard to prove) the government instead sought to exclude 'bad characters' from the industry. Jun 4, 2016 at 10:38

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