Keys to making sure you hire a reputable, competent and credible investigator.
By Rob L. Kimmons (Texas)
Information is power. That’s particularly true in domestic litigation, where private investigators can provide attorneys with valuable information that can make a significant difference in the outcome of a case.
A competent private investigator can be of assistance in a number of areas of a domestic/family law matter.
However one of the toughest challenges in working with a private investigator may lie in making sure you are hiring a reputable, competent and credible investigator in the first place. For this reason, family lawyers would be well advised to investigate their investigator.
Hiring an investigator who is unethical, incompetent, or unresponsive can end up doing more harm than good. If you are unfamiliar with an investigator, take the time to run a few quick and basic checks.
Several agencies can provide information regarding the reputation and history of the investigative company you are considering. Most states have licensing boards that regulate investigative agencies.
In Texas, the regulatory agency for private investigators is the Texas Department of Public Safety/Licensing & Registration Service. A quick phone call or search online will provide information regarding an investigative firm’s license status, how long it has been in business, and if the company is in good standing. This state agency can also provide a complaint history on an investigative company. Simply go to www.txdps.state.tx.us or call (512) 424-7293.
The Better Business Bureau can provide a complaint history on the firm and indicate any awards the firm has received for excellence in customer satisfaction. The BBB can also provide a list of investigative firms that are members of the bureau.
In addition to this background research, it’s a good idea to request a copy of the investigative firm’s insurance policy information. In Texas, an investigative firm is required to have a minimum of $300,000 in liability insurance (Kimmons Investigative Services Inc., for example, carries a $2 million policy with an errors and omission rider). Moreover, a quick civil litigation search can provide valuable information about the background and credibility of the investigator.
Make it a point to visit the investigator’s office for the initial meeting, a process that can often be a very enlightening experience. Many investigative firms do not have an office, the staff, facilities, equipment etc. necessary to conduct professional investigations.
Plus, many fly-by-night investigators have been known to suddenly disappear after providing services for a law firm, thereby leaving the legal team hanging high and dry when it comes to testifying in a case. An investigative firm’s office and staff can be a good indication of their capabilities, as well as whether or not they will be around when it comes time to testify to the work they performed on your case.
Once you have secured the services of a competent and reputable investigator, make sure you are using the services of an investigator to the full extent. Investigators are often called upon to conduct surveillance on the opposing party in a divorce action. Surveillance can be instrumental in discovering and documenting infidelity, untruthfulness, child neglect or abuse, hiding of assets etc.
Vehicle tracking is another investigative option available to clients in domestic matters. Even though some clients prefer not to authorize the application of tracking devices on a subject’s vehicle, these technologies can be a tremendous aid to investigators, and are legal if the attorney’s client is at least a 50% owner in the target vehicle and there are no court orders prohibiting tracking the vehicle. The GPS tracking devices provide real time locations and vehicle speed through Internet software. A driving report can also be generated showing all of the locations the vehicle has traveled to as well as the length of time the vehicle was at each location.
Still another benefit of vehicle tracking is that it can reduce the cost of the investigation. Effective surveillance often requires two vehicles and two investigators. However, if a tracker is on the target vehicle, one investigator tracking from his vehicle can usually do the job.
Countermeasures/debug sweeps can also be useful in domestic cases. Typically these sweeps are conducted to determine if listening devices, or hidden cameras, have been placed on a telephone or inside a residence or business. Countermeasure equipment can also detect vehicle-tracking devices.
Some investigators claim to have the equipment and training necessary to conduct countermeasures/debugging sweeps. However, attorneys should be very cautious and pre-qualify their investigator or security expert to determine if they indeed have the equipment and expertise to offer this service.
In my experience, at least 80% of companies that claim to provide countermeasure services do a poor job due to lack of sufficient equipment. Performing countermeasures/debugging effectively requires in excess of $50,000 in technical equipment and extensive training. When hiring an investigator to perform countermeasures, use caution and do not be afraid to ask questions about the training and experience of the investigator performing these services.
Qualified investigators can also offer computer forensic services. Computer forensics is a computer investigation and analysis technique used to acquire civil, criminal, or administrative evidence from a computer, smart phone etc. Business records, asset information, immoral activity, evidence of deception etc, can often be obtained from a computer forensic analysis. Often encrypted, damaged, or deleted files can be recovered. In the case of a cellular phone, this can also include obtaining deleted texts and emails. Information from a subject’s computer or cellular phone can be a tremendous aid in domestic matters.
Investigative firms may also be able to offer expert assistance in locating hidden assets in a domestic matter. This might include extensive database research, courthouse research, surveillance, monitoring of trash that is legally accessible, etc. Limited bank account and stocks and bonds searches are also available, as permitted by federal law.
Most certainly, an investigator cannot predict or control what a subject’s activities will reveal. However, if an attorney has used an investigator on numerous occasions to conduct surveillance, and never obtained information that is pertinent to his/her case, chances are the attorney has hired the wrong investigator.
Private investigators can be an invaluable resource and make a positive difference in the outcome of a domestic litigation case. However, it’s important to investigate your investigator, obtain references, and ascertain that the investigative company has expertise in the area of services being offered.
Rob Kimmons, CHS III, CPP, CFE, is President of Kimmons Investigative Services, Inc., 5906 Dolores St., Suite 225, Houston, TX 77057. He can be reached at www.kimmonssecurity.com. Kimmons Investigative Services has offices In Houston, Dallas, and Austin, Texas.