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All About Private Investigators (“PI’s”) in South Carolina

At Futeral and Nelson, our criminal defense attorneys have used private investigators for a number of reasons over the years, including gathering evidence of adultery in divorce cases, serving papers in family court or civil cases, or interviewing witnesses in criminal cases. To utilize effectively the money you spend on a private investigator (often called a “PI”), it is important that you select one that will give you what you need for court. In this article, we’ll discuss some of South Carolina laws that govern PI’s, give tips on selecting a private investigator, and give tips on how to work with one.

What are South Carolina’s Laws Regarding Private Investigators and Their Licensing?

PI licenses are granted and monitored by our State Law Enforcement Division (“SLED”). South Carolina statutes give PI’s the authority to:

  • Gather information regarding people or businesses
  • Assist in locating and recovering lost or stolen property
  • Investigate losses caused by fire and other problems
  • Secure evidence to be used in a criminal or civil proceeding, or before a board, an administrative agency, an officer, or investigating committee
  • Provide security services [Note: this article is NOT focused on the security services aspect of PI licensing]

Just because a PI provides some of the types of services listed above, doesn’t mean they do them all. You need to check.

PI’s are required to keep a license with SLED and post a $10,000 bond as approved by SLED. Renewals occur every year. If a PI goes out of business without refunding the client’s money, the bonding company might pay for another PI to finish the work. SLED determines the eligibility of applicants for licenses, investigates complaints of PI’s, makes rules/regulations related to PI’s, and monitors their training. PI’s are required to document to SLED 12 hours of SLED-approved continuing education hours every 24 months. PI’s can have their licenses suspended or revoked for various reasons, or they can be fined by SLED for different types of improper or illegal conduct.

What are the Requirements in South Carolina to Get a Private Investigator’s License?

In South’s Carolina, to obtain a private investigator’s license, a person must:

  • Be at least 21 years old
  • Hold a high school diploma or equivalent
  • Be a citizen of the U.S.
  • Not have been convicted of any felony or crime of dishonesty
  • Be of good moral character
  • Not unlawfully use alcohol
  • Not use alcohol to a degree that affects his or her ability to be a PI
  • Not have been declared incompetent by a court
  • Have no physical or mental impairment that would affect his or her ability to be a PI
  • Not have been discharged from the military with other than an honorable discharge
  • Have at least 3 years experience working for a PI (exceptions apply such as former police officers)

PI’s are required to enter into written contracts with their clients, on a form approved by SLED, that (1) describe in detail the services to be provided, (2) set the fees to be charged, and (3) describe whether and how a written report will be issued. The client may waive the written contract in writing. The written report must detail the hours worked, itemize the time charged, and give the results of the investigation. This report can also be waived by the client in writing. These contracts must be kept by the PI for at least 3 years.

If the PI finds evidence of criminal activity, the PI must report this evidence to the Chief of SLED immediately. PI’s also have ethics to follow, and no one should ask a PI to perform an illegal act.

South Carolina does allow for “limited” reciprocity with North Carolina for the licensing of PI’s so that your South Carolina private investigator may be able to perform some of his or services over that state line if the case originated in South Carolina and if the investigation won’t take more than 30 days.

The PI rules do NOT apply to certain officers or employees of the government, consumer reporting agencies, attorneys-at-law, and certain folks in the insurance industry. These people can perform PI-type services without having a formal license or bond. People who act as PI’s without having a license and who are not exempt as explained in this paragraph can be charged with a crime.

A lot of people are required to have PI licenses even those who do realize it. Some common types are computer forensic examiners and arson investigators. However, if the role of the person is sufficiently limited, a license may not be required. For example, people who are only hired to serve legal papers are generally not required to hold PI licenses.

How Do I Pick the Best Private Investigator in South Carolina?

You can always search the internet, but it may be better to utilize a referral so that someone you trust has vouched for the PI. Preferably, the recommendation will come from someone with some experience in the law. The lawyers at Futeral & Nelson have been primarily using the same PI to conduct our investigations and serve our legal papers for several years. It is nice to work with someone with whom we are familiar, and we already know his background. Ultimately, it is our client’s decision which PI to hire though.

You definitely want to ensure that your PI is licensed. If not, you are assisting someone in committing a crime. Secondly, you know that your PI has passed various background checks. Third, your PI will have a bond that might protect you if he or she doesn’t finish your work. Finally, the license proves that your PI has at least met a minimum standard.

Occasionally, a case requires expertise outside of the strengths of our regular PI. For example, while we usually go with the same PI for surveillance services, we hire the services of different people for computer forensics or polygraph examinations.

Professionalism is another important virtue when selecting a PI. We want someone who takes cases seriously, who is organized, and who we trust to maintain confidentiality. This carries over to testifying well in court. While it’s true that a lot of cases don’t go to trial, we don’t want to hire someone if we are worried they may not have the respect of judges and juries when they testify.

PI’s are not required to join any particular associations, so don’t feel that just because a particular PI is not a member of an association that the PI is not a good one. Also, insurance is not required to be carried, but depending on the type of service you are looking for, you might want a PI who carries errors and omission insurance.

Don’t be scared to interview your PI before hiring. It is fair to explore your PI’s experience, both before and after he or she started doing private investigating. Also, you need to tell the PI what exactly you are looking for, and it’s completely fair for you to have a discussion to try and determine a budget before you hire them.

How Can I Help My Private Investigator?

Have you ever heard the saying “garbage in/garbage out”? This often holds true with PI’s. The more information, and the better information, you can give him or her, the more likely you will get your money’s worth out of their services.

For example, if you are trying to prove adultery, think of what information you can give to the PI to help the investigator with something useful. For example, if your spouse plays in a poker game or goes to yoga every Tuesday, it is possible that your spouse would use this seemingly “out of home” time to meet his or her paramour. In other words, give your PI the spouse’s approximately weekly schedule.

You might want to also prepare a small package for the PI that contains things like your spouse’s vehicle description and license tag number, work address, local hangouts, and even provide a couple of photographs.

If you and your spouse are on the same phone account, pull the itemized phone records. To save money, you might try to investigate the numbers and eliminate the ones that would be a waste of time for your PI to investigate. With phone records or with anything, the more “grunt work” you do, the less time your PI will have to spend on these tasks.

Think about what has happened recently, and describe anything that seems even remotely fishy, bring it up with your PI (and your lawyer!). Only after your PI and attorney have considered ALL potentially helpful information can they assist in coming up with a game plan to gather the evidence you need at the lowest cost for you.

Final Thoughts on Private Investigators in South Carolina

If you are in a situation that might require hiring a private investigator, do your homework before you spend that money. If you’d like any help, please contact the criminal lawyers at Futeral & Nelson in Mt Pleasant and Charleston to set up a consultation.

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