Guns, Gams & Gumshoes

A blog for PIs and writers/readers of the PI genre

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Answering Writers’ Questions: What Records Can PIs Legally Obtain?

Posted by Writing PIs on March 12, 2012

Today we answer writers’ questions about PIs obtaining people’s records, such as drivers’ records and court records.

Writer’s Question: What are the legal reasons for a PI to request and obtain public records? What would be some “illegal” reasons?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes’ Answer: Statutes provide these permissible uses, or as you said “legal reasons.” For example, the Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) is a federal law that regulates how information is disseminated (which includes who can access this information) for drivers’ licenses, auto registrations, auto titles, motor vehicle emissions, motor vehicle recalls (and other objects of governmental purposes). Here’s a partial list of who can access DPPA-type information for others: federal, state or local courts and law enforcement in connection with driver safety, theft, emission and product recalls; licensed private investigation or security services; civil, criminal or administrative court proceedings; collection agencies; anyone in possession of written permission from the subject.

In our state private investigators are not required to be licensed — when we go to the DMV to obtain others’ driving records, we must provide the court case number and Colorado jurisdiction for which the search is being conducted.

There are also various restrictions in different states for the public, including private investigators, in accessing court files. In Colorado, private investigators can legally request any court file except for sexual assault, juvenile and probate. We don’t know the statutes for other states, but it’s possible a PI in another state might have to show his/her license (similar to law enforcement) to access court files containing sensitive information (such as probate, financial statements in divorce cases, proprietary and trade secret information, sexual assault).

As to “illegal reasons” to access records, you can also think of these as the non-permissible reasons. For example, a PI can’t access a driver’s history to find that person’s residence so the PI can stalk, intimidate or harass that person. Those are obviously non-permissible reasons and the PI could end up answering to federal charges for violating the DPPA and state charges for participating in stalking. Similarly, a PI cannot obtain other records that are governed by permissible reasons (such as police records, water district records, fire district records) for personal use (for example, to solicit clients for himself or for a lawyer, or to resale the information for profit).

Writer’s Question: My character isn’t a PI; she’s an investigative journalist, but I figured she’d use a lot of the same techniques and methods as a PI. Another character in my story, actually the romantic interest of the PI, is a sheriff. Would he, too, use some of the same resources as the PI?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes’ Answer: Regarding techniques and methods, an investigative journalist is similar to a PI. A fair number of investigative journalists who lost their jobs during this recession (as newspapers have downsized) have become PIs in our state. One of our best friends is a former Los Angeles paper crime reporter who became a PI. As to your hero sheriff, he’d have access to a lot more resources than a PI. For example, he can tap into the FBI’s NCIC, the National Crime Information Center. He can also access national databases of motor vehicle registrations, certain military information, and immigration records.

Have a great week, Writing PIs

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