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Answering a Writer’s Question: Can a Private Investigator Get Romantically Involved with a Client?

Posted by Writing PIs on September 6, 2014

“Let me explain something to you, Walsh. This business requires a certain amount of finesse.”~ Jake Gittes, Chinatown (1974)

Note to Readers: Several years ago, Colleen wrote a monthly column, “P.I. Confidential,” for Novelists, Inc., a community of writers who write novel-length commercial fiction. At the end of each article, she would answer questions writers had sent in — below is her response to a question about P.I.s having romantic dalliances with their clients.

fedora black and white

Writer’s Question: Are there any legal restrictions on a P.I. getting involved with a client, the subject of an investigation, a fellow P.I., or a law enforcement officer who’s involved in the same case? If not, are there generally accepted ethical guidelines or is it totally up to the P.I.’s own judgment? How about any lawsuits arising out of these kinds of relationships?

Answer: It’s certainly popular in film and books for a P.I. to get involved with a client. It’s not uncommon in real life, either. In our community, there’s a high-profile P.I. who became romantically involved with a woman who’d hired him to be her bodyguard–years later, they’re still happily together.

Although there aren’t always legal restrictions, there are often ethical ones to consider in the relationships mentioned. As to lawsuits, none appear in online sources; however, that doesn’t mean none exist. (Note: This was based on research in May 2011).

Involvement with a Client

Attorneys, physicians, accountants and psychologists cannot legally get involved with their clients because those professional-client relationships are interwoven with significant trust. However, in the vast majority of jurisdictions, there is no legal proscription forbidding a P.I. getting involved with a client.

That said, there are a pile of reasons why a P.I. should scrupulously avoid romantic entanglements with clients, a key one being the P.I.’s loss of professional objectivity. After all, clients hire P.I.s to make factual discoveries, not be advocates of their versions of events.

If a P.I. is hired through an attorney, the P.I. is an agent of that law firm, and the P.I.’s conduct is covered by the attorney’s code of professional responsibility. Therefore, if a P.I. were to get involved with a client, that attorney is on the hook for negligent supervision. For example, the attorney could be viewed as authorizing the P.I.’s sexual misconduct with a client, and the attorney could easily lose his/her license. Horrible scenario in real-life, juicy for fiction.

Involvement with the Subject of an Investigation

Let’s look at a few examples of what might be construed as a “romantic involvement”:

  • Taking the subject out to dinner
  • Weekend trips
  • Buying presents.

In the eyes of the law, the appearance of impropriety is as bad as the impropriety itself. In other words, if it looks like a fish, then it smells like a fish.

In a worse-case scenario, if police or opposing counsel learned that a P.I. was romantically involved with the subject of an investigation, it’s conceivable that the P.I. might be charged with tampering with a witness, improper influence or bribery. What if it was truly an innocent get-together, just an interview over dinner, nothing more? Sorry, a qualified P.I. should know appearances count. Again, this scenario offers ample fodder for fiction.

Let’s say the P.I. has become romantically linked to the subject of an investigation, and the romance goes south. A heartbroken witness might report a P.I.’s “misconduct” to authorities, maybe concoct a few heinous details (there’s no fury like a scorned lover). The P.I. could be publicly skewered by the local media and by opposing counsel in open court, and let us not forget the far-reaching impact of blogs, Twitter, Facebook LinkedIn…

Involvement with a Law Enforcement Officer

If a P.I. and police officer, who are intimately involved, are on different sides of a case, and they share–or even appear to share–case information, it can undermine a legal proceeding. For example, a convicted person is sitting, and stewing, in prison…then one day he learns that the D.A.’s detective in his case, and the P.I. the convicted man’s family hired, were lovers. Convict rings up his attorney, who files a motion for a new trial, claiming the P.I. shared investigative information and strategy with the other side of the case. Guess what? The conviction could easily be overturned.

Involvement with a Fellow P.I.

Yours truly eloped with her P.I.-business partner, so she well understands this scenario. First, let’s look at it this way: It’s not uncommon for professional peers–whether they’re P.I.s, cops, lawyers, or stockbrokers–to get involved. However, an ethical dilemma could arise if the P.I.s are working opposite sides of a case (see “Involvement with a Law Enforcement Officer,” above).

A by-product of a P.I.-P.I. relationship is the absolute unpredictability of each partner’s schedule. With one cell phone call, a candlelit dinner can turn into a moonlight surveillance. If they’re both working the same case, no ethical problems there…as long as both P.I.s keep their eyes on the target, not the moon…or each other.

Have a great weekend, Writing PIs

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All rights reserved by Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman. Any use of the content (including images owned by Colleen Collins and/or Shaun Kaufman) requires specific, written authority. Any violations of this reservation will result in legal action.

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