A behind-the-scenes look at how private investigators collect legal evidence for the courtroom.
Interview with Rob Kimmons, Private Investigator
Today it is my pleasure to be speaking with Rob Kimmons. Rob is from Houston, Texas and he owns a private investigation firm there called Kimmons Investigation Services; his website is kimmonsinv.com, and you can find more out about Rob and his firm there. Kimmons Investigation Services was established and has its head office in Houston, but also has an office in Austin and investigators who work for them in Dallas. The firm is currently licensed throughout the state of Texas and their investigators include former and current law enforcement officers. Kimmons also has working relationships with security firms and private investigation firms both nationally and worldwide.
It’s my pleasure to talk with Rob about technology, evidence, and litigation support—all subjects that are of interest to family lawyers. Some of the information Rob will be sharing with us might pertain more to the state of Texas, so if you’re a family lawyer listening to or reading this teleseminar, I advise you to check with a licensed private investigator in your state just to make sure that what Rob talks about applies to your state. He has told me before the interview that in most cases it does, but it’s just wise to check with the rules and regulations and laws in your state.
Let’s start with giving our listeners just a bit of background about how you got involved in the private investigation business.
I’m a native Houstonian, and I was actually a Houston fireman and then a Houston police officer for a total of almost 12 years before going to work for a larger (at the time) investigative firm in that city. I was hired by a friend of mine who was also a former law enforcement officer back in 1983. I stayed with him about two years and then started my own firm.
I’m sure you’ve seen a good number of changes in your industry. Can you give us a little bit of an idea of what sort of changes have occurred over the past few years?
The part that has changed the most drastically is the technology side of things. There are cases where we still do the typical gumshoe-type work (surveillance, witness interviews, even the monitoring of trash when it’s legal), but where it’s really changed is the sophistication of the nationwide and worldwide databases that are available. These are not the same databases that you use when you Google, these are databases that are subscribed to. Some of them are really pretty incredible and they change daily and become better and better.
Also computer forensics has turned into an area that can make the difference in many of our cases, and that is analyzing computers, cellphones, smartphones, and those kinds of things to pull information off of them and testify to it. Even when the person that maintained the computer or the cellphone might have felt they deleted the information, often it’s still accessible. So that’s another area that’s really, I’d say in the last three years, grown dramatically. Another area would be vehicle tracking. When it’s legal, that’s something that a lot of investigators do, tracking vehicles with a GPS when they have ’em under surveillance. So those are all areas that I’d say are relatively new in our industry.
Regarding vehicle tracking, is that when, as an investigator, you have to put something on a vehicle and then follow it to wherever it’s going?
You do. But it can’t be for just any client, they also have to be an owner of the vehicle on the registration; they also they have to give us written permission to install the device. A couple of years ago those devices were pretty big. Now they’re very small, more the size of a cigarette pack, and you can put ’em on magnetically, covertly or, if you get possession of the vehicle, you can install ’em permanently on the car battery. But they’re very small, they’re very effective, they can locate the vehicle anytime and they can also track speed and a lot of other things. So they’re a great aid to investigators but you have to make sure that you have a legal right to install the device.
And there are probably an unlimited number of reasons why somebody would want to track a vehicle— everything from potential infidelity to speeding and reckless driving to not being where they’re supposed to be at a given time.
That’s correct. We use ’em in corporate and domestic cases. On the domestic side it certainly helps us track someone who might be involved in infidelity. We also often work child custody cases where the individual may be drinkin’ and drivin’ or driving recklessly with children in the car, that kind of thing. And it helps us document those activities for the court.
Now, if you’re on the other side of the coin and you want to make sure that your vehicle doesn’t have one of these tracking devices on it, can you help scan the car to make sure it’s not there, or even check the home or wherever somebody may have put a device?
That’s a good point, and actually we advise attorneys that we work for, if it’s a contested case, that they have their client bring their car by and let us check it to see if there’s the possibility of an opposing investigator trackin’ their car. You have to have the correct equipment, and honestly very few investigators do. You have to have the training and the equipment to find these devices. So we do a lot of that as well as looking for listening devices in the home, in the business, that kind of thing.
Wow. So do you get hired by married couples who suspect that their spouse might be cheating? Is that something that’s regular? And if that’s the case what percentage of people are actually guilty of infidelity?
Yes, we get hired by individuals who have these suspicions as well as law firms. Once they come in to see us, especially individuals, they usually have a pretty good idea that somethin’s goin’ on. So it’s a high percentage, a very high percentage of the time we do find out that there is infidelity—I’d say as high as 60, 70 percent or more of the cases where they come in and hire us. By the time they come in our door they pretty much know somethin’s up and so most of the time that will be the case.
They’re not shocked when you tell them that they’re actually right.
In the majority of the cases, no. They either want to validate their suspicions or they want evidence for court or both. Most of the time, unfortunately, that’s what happens.
Now in Texas it can often be important for a divorce case if there has been infidelity, but no so much so in other states. I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve been led to believe that in Texas it can determine a number of things in terms of support or division of assets. So it’s a pretty important job that you’ve got to help uncover this sort of information if it has occurred in the marriage.
That’s true. And if an individual is doing that sort of thing and they’re honest about it and they’re not hiding assets, it’s probably not a big issue. But so much of the time they’re not gonna admit to it, and may even perjure themselves in a deposition and then we have to come in with proof that it is going on. From then on it’s gonna be difficult for them to convince the court that they’re tellin’ the truth about other issues.
So that happens quite often. But also if you have a paramour or somebody you’re seeing when you’re married and you’re spending a lot of community assets on that person, then it can become a big issue in these cases.
I hadn’t thought of it that way—that one lie could lead to another lie that leads to another lie. But I guess that’s often the situation.
Once the court is put in a position where they can’t believe what you’re sayin’, what’s you’re tellin’ the court, then it can affect the case for the remainder of the trial or the litigation.
So in talking about court, are you often called upon to present evidence in court, and have you been cross-examined? Is that part of the process that you would be put through when you go to court?
Yes, it’s a pretty normal occurrence, especially in domestic cases. Half of our cases are corporate and we very seldom testify on those, but occasionally if it’s a criminal case or somethin’ we will. But domestic cases, it’s very routine for us to testify in those cases as to what evidence we uncover.
Does that give you a particular perception of the legal system and how lawyers work to make their case for their clients? As you gain more experience, I’m sure you have a better understanding of how you might be manipulated or how the system might work one way and not work another way.
You do get a better idea, and you’ll start to anticipate a lot of their questions before they’re asked because you’ve been down that road before. Most of my people including myself are former law enforcement and it gives you a unique advantage in a way because as former police officers most of us testified many times when we were in that capacity. Because of this you’re much more relaxed and you’re much more in tune with what’s gonna happen. And so it gives us, I think, an advantage.
But the main thing to me on testifying is to be prepared, to know your subject matter, and to be truthful, because then a lot of the pressure is taken off of you.
Can you tell us some of the tried and true techniques that you’ve used in the past and maybe some of the latest technology-oriented solutions that allow you to collect admissible evidence that lawyers are currently using in the court these days?
There’s really two sides to the investigative business. One would be what I call the gumshoe side, where you’re conducting surveillance, locating witnesses, interviewing them who may have knowledge of whatever it is you’re trying to prove. In surveillance, which we and most investigators do a lot of, the best way to have that evidence admissible in court is detailed reports, photographic evidence to prove you were out there and that you did see what is in your report—that kind of thing. And just document well what you’ve done.
Probably the biggest complaint I’ve seen about investigative firms is their reporting back. You can do a great job at surveillance or whatever you’re doin’, but if you don’t know how to regurgitate that in a detailed report that makes sense, with backup documentation and photographs, then often the effort is wasted. So that’s that side of the business.
The other side is the technology side, and again that’s the computer forensics work. Texts, e-mails, and voicemails can be the deal-killer or the deal-maker in these cases because it’s very difficult to argue with that kind of evidence. If you get a hold of somebody’s smartphone it can just be a wealth of evidence and really make the difference.
I know that you’re a licensed investigator and that you have the necessary insurance. I also read on your website that you have an excess of the required insurance. Can anybody hang up a shingle and call themselves a private investigator?
They can try and they do, from time to time. But you are required to be licensed through the state and the Department of Public Safety actually regulates that. You’re required to have your own license and to have quite a bit of experience. You’re also required to be insured and you are governed by state police who come in about once a year and make sure that you’re operating correctly. But there are people that try to do it on their own and hopefully they catch most of them and shut ’em down.
Can you give us an example of when your firm has helped an attorney leverage the evidence that you were able to secure in a case and where their client came out ahead because of the that? Obviously without any names, but give us an example of how your evidence turned into a win for a client.
Hopefully, for most of our cases, that’s what happens, and I believe it is. There’s just so many ways that can happen and we’ve covered that as far as surveillance and infidelity, hiding assets, and what we might find through our computer forensics expert that we have here.
But another area that we think a lot of attorneys don’t really think about that often is profiling due diligence of their expert witnesses.
Often these cases hinge on both sides having experts, and there’s many, many times when things are left off of a résumé that would be useful in cross-examination of that expert. Maybe litigation that he was a defendant, and that he wasn’t gonna offer that up and that kinda thing. So we’ve had a lot of success conducting due diligence of experts as well as parties involved in the divorce action themselves.
I mean, if you have a person that has been married maybe just a few years and prior to that he has had an extensive criminal record, you’d be surprised how many times that’s not known. And so due diligence of the parties involved in the divorce can often make the difference as well.
You’ve touched on this before, Rob, but also behavioral patterns like problematic drinking or drug abuse or that sort of thing—is that all admissible evidence if you can find it?
Most of the time it is, especially if the welfare of children is involved if it’s a child custody battle. We run into a lot of cases where you have someone who has a previous documented drinking problem for instance, but they have maybe been to rehab or had counseling and they say that they’ve got it under control. But our client or our client’s attorney feels like that may not be the case. Then we’re sent out to try to determine if they still have that problem. There’ve been numerous cases where we have documented heavy drinking and even erratic driving after drinking with the children in the car.
When that happens, that’s usually a huge deal to the court and it can make a very big difference in the case. And there might be something as simple as, in Texas for instance, picking up trash. It sounds kind of strange I guess, but if they put it out to the curb then they have no expectation of privacy. We’ve had cases where we suspect drug activity and we’ll pick up the trash and there’ll be drug paraphernalia and things in there that will help make our case.
So every case is different. We just have to see what the objective is, what we suspect might be goin’ on and, if it’s goin’ on, that we document it. If it’s not goin’ on, then that’s what we’re gonna report as well.
Talk to us for a moment about the reconstruction process, whether you’re locating people or whether you’re locating assets. Are you doing interviews if you’re trying to track someone down? Is it like it is on TV, knocking on doors and asking questions? In terms of locating assets how is the process different? I assume it’s more internet-oriented, but maybe you can shed some light on both of these.
On locating individuals, I’d say less than 5 percent of the time are you gonna be knocking on doors. The databases that good investigative firms subscribe to are very good, and they’re updated daily. We often find people through that process, especially if we have or can develop a Social Security number. Then our success rate goes way up. If that fails or if we get some leads but we can’t quite confirm an address, we also have contacts that we can use that might be a utility contact, or someone in the area that can help us.
And if all that fails, then sometimes you do knock on doors. But we locate over 90 percent of those we’re lookin’ for through computer database work. Fifteen years ago most of it was done by knockin’ on doors and talkin’ to people. So that’s really evolved and it’s gotten much less expensive to locate people for that reason.
So you could tell or know if somebody for instance flew from the United States to Mexico? Would you be able to track down that sort of information?
Sometimes. If they’re flying internationally a lot of that information is protected. But if we have leads then sometimes we can resurrect that. But it might involve hiring somebody on the other end. In other words, teaming with somebody in Mexico on a case like that. If it’s important, those kind of cases can usually be worked out, but the cost of doin’ something like that goes up quite a bit. Anytime you get out of the country it becomes much more expensive and often more time-consuming to get something like that done. But certainly we’ve done a lot of international work and it’s just a bigger hurdle to climb when you have to get into those areas.
Regarding assets, that’s really a two-fold area as well because when you talk about tangible assets—things such as property, vehicles, boats, maybe aircraft—most of that is readily accessible through databases, through public records, and most investigators can do a search of tangible assets relatively quickly and inexpensively.
When it comes to bank accounts, stocks, and bonds, that type of thing is much more difficult. There’s been some federal laws passed in the past five or six years as well as state laws that greatly restrict what we can do when looking for those type of assets. So unfortunately it usually ends up reverting back to more of the gumshoe work to find those financial assets. It might be interviews, surveillance, monitoring of trash. You can check what’s called UCCs—uniform commercial codes—and see if they’ve financed anything, and they might list their banking.
But it’s a more in-depth, time-consuming, and expensive process now to look for bank accounts and stocks and bonds than it was five years ago because the laws have changed. So that’s one area where it’s kind of reverted back to requiring more of the gumshoe work, and it’s now more of an expensive solution to try to find those assets. If you have an idea of where they bank then obviously the attorneys can draw up subpoenas and we can serve garnishments on the banks to try to determine what they have, but it’s a difficult area.
If you can uncover some evidence but maybe don’t have the complete picture, it may give the other side the perception that you’re headed in the right direction, and that might in turn encourage them to be more cooperative and share the information before it’s uncovered through your work.
That’s a real good point, Dan. A lot of times once they learn an investigator is involved, especially if, as you just said, you can show ’em some results, then they’re gonna be much less reluctant to hold back or to be honest under oath. So a good attorney, unaware of what exactly you know, may be reluctant to hide facts when they don’t know what you already have.
I suspect that tracing cash is challenging if the person has unreported income. Do you get involved in that type of case as well, trying to locate that cash or ascertaining their lifestyle? How do you go about helping in that area?
That is an area similar to when you’re looking for bank accounts or stocks. It’s not an easy one. Obviously if they show an income of $20,000 but they have a lifestyle of somebody looks like they’re making a million dollars a year, then that raises a red flag. A lot of the time we’ll get information from someone who knows that their spouse is receiving cash from different sources. So it may end up involving interviews of people that would know the cash is paid. It may be surveillance of them meeting with certain people or surveillance of them goin’ to a job that isn’t disclosed that pays in cash.
So that’s an area where you hopefully will have some leads goin’ in and you follow those leads to try to show that there is income that’s not being reported.
Of course there are family lawyers listening to this and they’ll be reading this interview. Are there two or three things that you would recommend a family lawyer ask a private investigator that they’re considering hiring on? Are there any qualifications, credentials, or experience that they should have that you think would be critical in a family law case?
That’s another good question. I have written some papers on investigating your investigator. I think that’s extremely important and there are things you can do, such as contacting the state board and seeing who regulates the firm, seeing if they’ve had any complaints. Check with the Better Business Bureau, check litigation in the county where they operate, see if they’ve been a defendant in cases, that kind of thing.
But one of the things I think is extremely worthwhile to do if you want an ongoing relationship with an investigator is to go visit him. Go to his office. I’m not saying that if you have a fancy office that makes you a good investigator. But you do need to have the tools of the trade and you do need to have some staff to get the work done. See how long they’ve been in business and that kinda thing. I think a trip to their office is important.
I can’t tell you how many times over the last 25 years we’ve been hired by a law firm to find an investigator that they’ve used. They need what that investigator brought to the table for them to testify, but they can’t find them because they’re already out of business.
That sounds like you’re making your own business here.
It’s a transient business, it really is. There are some good professionals in this business, but there’s a lot of ’em that are in and out of the business quickly because it’s not what they thought it was. So I just think it’s real important to qualify your investigator. A good investigative company is not gonna be afraid of that process.
You’ve already touched on this one, but given that many of these cases might end up at trial you want to be assured that the person you’re hiring is also going to be good at giving evidence and really representing both your client and you as the lawyer because you’re often the one who’s recommended them. You want to be sure that they can go through the whole process. That they can do the investigation, can report the evidence that they collect, and can report that and be good at doing testimonial in the courtroom.
Correct. When they get on the stand, are they going to come across as a professional, are they gonna be believable and are they going to be able to really get across what they know and prove the evidence true? I’ve had investigators that worked for me for short periods that are very good at surveillance, but after you get to know ’em and see their demeanor you realize they’re not a person you wanna put on the witness stand. When you figure that out, you just can’t keep ’em because that’s a very important part of what we do, proving the evidence later in court. Otherwise it can be useless.
Rob Kimmons is a private investigator and owns the the private investigation firm Kimmons Investigation Services which is licensed to work throughout the state of Texas. To learn more about the work that Kimmons Investigation Services does in providing legal evidence for those who need it, please visit www.kimmonsinv.com.