We recently interviewed four leading private investigators – Nicholas Himonidis, Rob Kimmons, TJ Ward and Joe Gill – and asked them to share their experiences, insights and tips on their practices and strategies, the latest technology in their field and their work with family law cases.
Nicholas Himonidis is the Vice President of Investigations at T&M Protection Resources, based in New York. He has an extensive background in private investigations, computer forensics and law, and has participated in, conducted and supervised thousands of cases. www.tmprotection.com
What types of information-obtaining techniques are legal?
Rulings in New York and other states support the right of a spouse to obtain any and all information from family computers, smart phones and other devices. However, this is very different from the real-time interception made possible by spyware. Using spyware that monitors and records the activities of anyone without their knowledge and consent constitutes a Class E Felony in New York, punishable by up to four years in prison. Under the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules, any information obtained in this manner, no matter how relevant, is inadmissible in court.
Is cloning a spouse’s hard drive legal?
Forensic imaging of hard drives and other devices provides preservation of all digital data including emails and other communications, but is not deemed to be an “interception” that falls under eavesdropping statutes. Depending on the device in question, the user’s habits and configuration issues, forensic acquisition and analysis could yield the same or even more evidence than one could obtain with spyware and without the risk of criminal charges or the information being thrown out of court. Forensic acquisition of a computer hard drive or other electronic device for any legal case should be done by experienced and certified computer forensic professionals.
How would one know if spyware has been installed on a computer?
Spyware may be at work on your computer if it’s slow when saving files or opening programs, certain keys don’t work anymore, error messages or pop-up ads are more common. Your web home page may also different from usual and the browser could be hi-jacked, bringing you to unwanted websites.
To protect yourself, you can change all your online passwords and other personally identifiable information that may have been collected by software that records your every keystroke. You should also never use the same login ID and password for two different online services or install any new software without first verifying its source. Finally, don’t click on links in pop-up ads or unsolicited emails that advertise software that combats spyware.
Rob Kimmons formed Kimmons Investigative Services, Inc. in 1982. Licensed throughout Texas, it was established and has its head office in Houston, with offices in Austin and investigators working in Dallas. www.kimmonsinv.com
Can you tell us a little bit about vehicle tracking? Do you just put a device in a vehicle and follow it?
You do, but it can’t be for just any client. They need to be an owner of the vehicle on the registration and give us written permission to install the device. A couple of years ago those devices were pretty big, but now they’re very small, almost the size of a cigarette pack. You can put them on magnetically, covertly or, if you get possession of the vehicle, install them permanently on the car battery. They’re very effective, as they can locate the vehicle anytime and track speed as well as other things. They’re a great aid to investigators. We often use them in domestic cases. It helps us track someone who might be involved in infidelity. We also often work child custody cases where the individual may be drinking and driving or driving recklessly with children in the car, that kind of thing. Tracking helps us document those activities for the court.
Can you discuss some investigative techniques used today to collect admissible evidence?
There are 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, the best way to have that evidence admissible in court is detailed reports, photographic evidence to prove you were out there and to document what you’ve done. The other side is the technology side, which is 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.
What advice would you give family lawyers who are considering hiring a private investigator?
I think that’s extremely important to investigate your investigator 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 kind of thing.
TJ Ward founded Investigative Consultants International, Inc. and Executive Protection International in 1982. With offices in Georgia and Alabama, he has most recently been recognized for his work in the case of Natalee Holloway, a teen who went missing on a trip to Aruba. www.tjwardpi.com
Can you tell us about your role in the Natalee Holloway case?
Investigative Consultants and TJ Ward were the lead investigator hired by the family of Natalee Holloway. We utilized our (LVA 6.50) layered voice analysis early on in the investigations and established the lies by Jordan Van Der Sloot, conducted a physical investigation as to the evidence, working hands-on with the local authorities and the FBI. We kept the case alive with the public for over 2 years.
You’re a supporter of Layered Voice Analysis, can you tell us what kind of technology you’re using and how it works?
This unique 21st century truth technology is an investigative focus tool used to identify in real time the emotional, psychological and accuracy content of human speech regardless of the language. LVA (6.50) can be used in live interviews, during phone conversations, off pre-recorded materials or wave files. It identifies truthfulness and deception as well as excitement, uncertainty, voice manipulation, stress, tension and false statements, although the results can’t be used in a court proceeding, just like a polygraph.
How widely is this technology used?
The LVA 6.50 is currently being used by over 75 law enforcement agencies including the United States Department of Defense, and the United States Secret Service. It is also utilized by several insurance companies with help from special investigation units. Family lawyers could use this analysis when interviewing key witnesses during trial preparation.
Joe Gill is the President of Gill and Associates, which has been Philadelphia’s premier private investigation firm since it began in 1985. He has worked in many civil and criminal court cases. www.gillandassociates.com
What are the most common requests you receive from family lawyers?
We receive many requests from family lawyers. Background checks are often used in custody matters, particularly when a new person is involved in the child’s life, such as a boyfriend or girlfriend, nanny or childcare provider. Asset checks are also requested frequently in a divorce if an ex is claiming no assets and a judgment has been rendered against the party. Family lawyers also request our service if they need to find a missing parent or to locate a biological parent when looking to adopt a child.
Can you tell us about the use of surveillance in family law cases?
Surveillance can be used in many types of situations. It’s not only used to catch a cheating spouse, but often in child custody matters. It can help determine if a parent is adhering to the agreed upon or court-ordered terms of custody and visitations. It can also be used to show that a parent is working a job and not documenting the income, or to prove co-habitation in alimony and custody matters.
Can you speak a little more about asset investigations in family law?
An asset investigation looks for property and vehicle ownership, county and federal-level civil lawsuit settlements, as well as business ownership or interests and employment. The employment aspect of the investigation usually reveals the most useful information. In many cases, an individual involved in a spousal support matter claims to be unemployed or underemployed and through record searches and discreet surveillance, we can identify where and when the individual is actually working. We have often discovered large amounts of unreported income through construction and contracting jobs in which the individual deals only in cash. Other types of work that are frequently conducted out of the home and not reported are hair cutting/styling, computer repairs, childcare, landscaping and graphic design.
In one particular case, our client believed his ex-wife had a hidden source of income. Through the use of an undercover investigator, we discovered that the woman was involved in adult toy parties and sales. She even disclosed to our investigator that she chose this business specifically because she could hide the substantial income from her ex-husband.
Keys to making sure you hire a reputable, competent and credible investigator.
Retaining outside assistance does not mean that a lawyer abdicates responsibility for how an investigation is handled. Lawyers have ethical and even legal responsibility for the actions of those they retain, especially investigators.
A behind-the-scenes look at how private investigators collect legal evidence for the courtroom.