She left the rolled up Rembrandt in the Amtrak station in Newport News, along with the stack of bearer bonds. But what did she do with your grandmother’s heirloom jewelry and your 11 polo ponies? When you need to hire a private investigator (PI) in a family law or divorce issue, is it really as suspenseful and dramatic as it looks in the movies? Is every PI a Magnum, PI?

Does a Private Investigator Have To Be Licensed?

The Private Investigators Association of Virginia (PIAVA) politely reminds you that only licensed PIs, registered with the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (VA DCJS), can enter into contracts with clients (you, or your law firm) to investigate matters for you.

This means your PI will have a license issued by the VA DCJS with a registration number formatted as 99-xxxxxx, along with a VA DCJS identification card. Ask to see these when meeting a PI in person, and make sure the registration number appears in any contract you sign with the PI.

Can a Private Investigator Make Arrests?

A PI in Virginia is not a law enforcement officer. No PI can arrest people, for example, or trespass, or perform searches and seizures. VA DCJS itself sets out the limitations of this line of work. A PI cannot automatically carry a concealed weapon, for example, or be a bodyguard.

PIs in Virginia cannot just set up shop and get their license without showing evidence of training. PIs need 60 hours of training (Private Investigator Entry-Level) and eight hours continuing education classes. Amateurs are not allowed! This means your friend from the bar cannot trail your wife hoping to get dirt on her so you can divorce her.

What Can Private Investigators Investigate?

In family law, they may limit themselves to some basic issues:

  • Abuse — elder, spousal, child
  • Forensic accounting
  • Background investigations — Helpful for prenuptial agreements
  • Child custody
  • Computer security, crimes and forensics
  • Domestic relations — Unexplained absences, mysterious travel, claims of adultery
  • Electronic security
  • Process service — Handing divorce papers to your wife
  • Surveillance — Physical and electronic

If your divorce is heating up and you feel threatened, a PI service could also provide a licensed personal protection specialist. PIs can also perform highly specialized investigations, like arson, aviation accidents, and securities fraud.

How Much Does a Private Investigator Cost?

Listen, getting a gumshoe means moola, get me? Seriously, nobody in the PI business talks like that, and even though Dashiell Hammett was a real PI and wrote detective classics like The Maltese Falcon, even he knew nobody really talked like that, ever. Private investigators do, however, expect to be paid. They have two scales of pay:

  1. Flat fee — This is typically used for quick, brief investigations like a vehicle lookup, reverse telephone search, or employment record
  2. Hourly rate — This covers most of the other tasks a PI might be asked to perform, from accident investigation to marital infidelity to handwriting analysis

In addition to the hourly rate or flat fee, a PI will have expenses. This may include surveillance equipment such as cameras and recorders; travel costs; and subcontracting services, like laboratory analysis or out-of-state investigations.

Can Anybody Hire a Private Investigator?

A PI can be hired by any private citizen or law firm by entering into a contract with the PI business (not the individual PI). PIs in Virginia operate under a code of ethics, and of course operate within the law. For a Virginia man seeking a divorce, this means your PI will not trespass on private property, threaten anyone, or encourage you to engage in any unlawful activities for yourself. PIs are not enforcers, goons or thugs. They do not beat up people, for instance.

A typical example of what a PI can do might be trailing a wife suspected of adultery. The PI can, from a public street, photograph comings and goings at a hotel but cannot make audio recordings without the permission of those being recorded. Nor can your PI pretend to be someone else to get information out of the front desk clerk. Pictures of your wife and a mystery man entering the hotel together may be sufficient to press your case; the PI has no need for True Detective-esque, over-the-top dramatics.

Finding a Great Private Investigator

Not sure how to find a PI? Don’t worry.

They’ll find you.

Just kidding!

Virginia law firms have business relationships with Virginia PIs. If your attorney suggests a possible need for a PI’s services, work with your family law attorney so you have a clear understanding of what the PI can and cannot do. This will help avoid needless costs, your own frustration, and unexpected or disappointing results.

As for all the cloak-and-dagger tough guy talk, you can forget about it. Unless you like that sort of thing, in which case …

Wear a khaki trench coat with a pink carnation in the lapel. Go to the pay phone at Waffles N Things on Virginia Beach Boulevard to call 757-383-9184, The Firm For Men. Wait outside the phone booth for exactly seven minutes, then proceed to our law office. Or contact us online. Tell them “Jason” sent you.