Surveillance In Neighborhoods: Tricks Private Investigators Use

As private investigators, we are often asked to conduct infidelity and custody investigations in busy neighborhoods.  Neighborhoods can be tricky because of inquisitive neighbors. I have witnessed neighbors escalate their concerns to the point of calling the police. One of the things to remember in these situations is that one can occupy public streets at any time as long as they are not breaking the law.  Here are some ways we handle extended surveillance in neighborhoods.

What is a public street?

From – “public road means a road over which a public right of way exists and the responsibility for the maintenance of which lies on a road authority;”

In this regard, if you are sitting in your car on a public road, and are not committing a crime, then you can remain there as long as you like. In my profession, if I am in my car, and observing my surroundings with off-the-shelf equipment, then I am not committing a crime.

If you want to surveil someone in your neighborhood from your vehicle, make sure you are not breaking the law. If you park your car up on the sidewalk, in the grass, or block a driveway, you may be breaking a city ordinance or homeowners association rules. In this case you may be asked to move, and risk your cover being blown. Avoid breaking the law or drawing attention to yourself.

In the hundreds of cases I have worked in busy neighborhoods, I have been approached twice by a nosey neighbor. Below is how I handled those situations.

Nosey Neighbors

One of the best things to do to pre-empt the nosey neighbor, is to call the local police precinct. The purpose of this call is to let them know who you are and that you will be conducting surveillance in the neighborhood. There is no lying necessary in this situation. Simply call the non-emergency number for the department that covers the neighborhood and let them know your name, tell them you are a PI, and that you are conducting surveillance in the area. They may ask for a description of your car and the PI license number. Give them whatever information they ask for.

This information is entered into the dispatchers system. If a neighbor calls and says your car looks suspicious, the police will probably drive by, but not approach you unless laws are being broken.

If a neighbor approaches your car, ensure you cover any surveillance equipment.  They may tap on your window. Be polite and roll the window down. Here is a sample dialogue:

You, “Can I help you?”

Them, “Yeah, I saw you parked here and wondered if I can help you with anything.”

You, “No, ma’a,m.”

Them, “Well, what are you doing here?’

You, “I am a private investigator looking into some criminal activity over there.” (make a motion in the direction opposite of who you are surveilling.”

This should get them to go away. Sometimes they will ask if they can help. Never go into details just be polite and tell them no.  If they are persistent about you leaving, depart and come back another day. The last thing you want is to make a scene when conducting neighborhood surveillance.

“Do not give a regular citizen your identification. You don’t know them, they don’t know you. You have a right to be there.”
P.I. Advice

Dealing with the police

Sometimes the police will ask you to leave. This is where you definitely want to be polite and depart the area. Although, you may be right, starting an argument with a police officer is the last thing you want to do in this situation.

Do not lie to the officer. Tell them your real name and that you are a private investigator or concerned citizen conducting surveillance in the area. Most officers know that you are not required to disclose the name of your subject or client. If they ask for the name, tell them it is attorney work product and that you can’t disclose that information.

What can I record?

The question always arises about what is permissible to record. If you are on a public street and can see in the front door, then the person in the home does not maintain a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, if you climb a fence to see what is on the other side, then you are violating that person’s privacy. You cannot trespass, open doors, open gates, or look over fences. If you are obtaining footage, the equipment has to be readily available for public purchase (e.g. off-the-shelf). Violating these rules will get you a peeping tom charge and possible jail time.

Prepping you car

Not so long ago, another private investigative firm was hired along side my firm to work a case. I did not like the situation, but the client insisted. We set up a vantage point in a neighborhood surveilling a home. The newly hired investigator from the other firm, showed up in a shiny black Camaro with loud exhaust pipes. Immediately, people in the upper-class neighborhood came outside to take a look at the imposing vehicle.

Surveillance vehicles should be plain in style and color. The type I recommend are any of the mid-grade four door sedans on the market. Gray is the most common vehicle color in the United States so this is a good choice. Since I am in the South, pick-up trucks are suitable as long as the exhaust is not loud and they do not look like a monster truck.

Tinted windows help. At night, be sure to darken any lights inside the vehicle. You can do this by placing a jacket or towel over the dash lights. This keeps light from reflecting back in your face. I have seen investigators that refuse to turn the vehicle on to prevent interior lights from coming on. In Alabama, when it’s ninety degrees in the middle of the night, or in Wisconsin where temperatures can drop to below zero, I recommend covering interior lights and keeping yourself cool or warm. Exhaust may give away that your car is running, but if you are far enough away from your target, then this will not be an issue.

The key is to select a suitable vantage point that allows you to observe your target from a distance. The most common mistake investigators make is getting too close to the subject. Utilize the zoom feature on your equipment and back off. A rule of thumb: select a position where you have a difficult time seeing your subject with the naked eye, then use the zoom feature on your camera to do the rest of the work.

“Most of the time you’ll conduct surveillance from a parked vehicle. When choosing a location to park use your own best judgment. About five houses away should be sufficient. Keep in mind that neighbors or even police may approach your vehicle to check what’s going on. If this happens you want to be far enough away from your target to not be seen.”

Bottom Line

  • You have the right to be on any public street. Just be smart and do not create a disturbance if someone asks you to leave.
  • Be friendly to the police and follow their instructions. Never argue with the police while conducting surveillance.
  • You can’t be “unburned”. Come back another day to get the information you need.
  • Fancy cars draw attention. Select a vehicle that blends into society.

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