PI Licensing

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Denver Business Journal December 23, 2005

By Rick Johnson


A major effort is underway in Colorado to require the licensing of Private Investigators and Colorado individuals, businesses, insurance companies, legal firms, and financial enterprises that depend on private investigative services have a serious stake in the successful outcome of this legislative effort.

That stake is grounded in a national movement by the Congress, with the support of privacy groups, to suppress access to essential information. Information providers, clearly aware of the threat to their businesses, already have begun to respond by invoking controls that would deny information to private investigators who are not licensed in the states in which they do business.

Simply stated, if private investigators in Colorado are denied access to data, their clients will be denied that data, as well.

To the extent that the lack of licensing in Colorado permits incompetence, unethical behavior, and illegal conduct to exist, the Congress and the privacy groups arguing for limitations are correct to be concerned. Consider that, in Colorado, a convicted felon can walk out of prison one day and, with a 50-cent business card and a throw-away cell phone, set himself up as a private investigator – no questions asked.

That’s precisely why the Professional Private Investigators Association of Colorado (PPIAC) is sponsoring this licensing effort – first with a request to the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) for a review of the need for licensing, and then, if DORA approves, with a draft proposal to be submitted to the Colorado Legislature.

The immediate problem is that the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies killed a previous proposal presented by the PPIAC. From the Department’s decision in 2000:

“…A potential for public harm exists in the unregulated practice of private investigators, but the extent of this potential harm does not appear to reach a threshold sufficient to warrant regulation.”

How the potential harm in Colorado differs from or is less significant than the potential harm that requires licensing in Texas, California, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, and all of the other states that do license private investigators remains an absurd mystery.

Arbitrary and irrational thresholds aside, the fact of the matter is that, unlike most other professionals, private investigators don’t tend to leave obvious evidence of their mistakes, misconduct, or incompetence. Every day in Colorado, inexperienced private investigators take money in exchange for doing virtually nothing, sometimes for actually doing nothing.

Every day in Colorado, an unethical private investigator breaks the law, commonly by invading the privacy of another without just, reasonable, and legal cause to do so. Every day in Colorado, a private investigator takes on an assignment for which he or she is unqualified, providing a pattern of conduct and a result that actually may be contrary to the best interests of the client.

Perhaps 20 out of every hundred private investigators in Colorado, who conduct surveillance, know and understand the difference between surveillance and stalking.

Attorneys who should know better, often ask for protected bank records and other types of protected information, and there are private investigators out there who will use some agency to illegally obtain the information, placing the attorney and his or her client in jeopardy, should they ever have to explain how the information was obtained.

Every day, a private investigator in Colorado receives a telephone call from a man not personally known asking for help to locate a long lost girlfriend. Asking no questions, that private investigator finds her and then passes to the unknown caller her address, phone number, employer, even a description of the car she drives. I’ve received such calls, and when I inform the caller that, if I find the young woman, I’ll pass his information along to her and let her decide whether to respond, those callers almost always hang up. There’s a reasonable clue about what’s really going on.

There is a clear and present danger to Colorado residents by the failure of the state to license private investigators, and that danger will stealthily persist until right-thinking leaders in the legislature, the governor’s office, and other controlling bodies act to institute licensing.  

Rick Johnson is president of Rick Johnson & Associates of Colorado, Inc., 1649 Downing Street, Denver, CO, 80218, 303-296-2200. He is a former Investigator for the Denver County and Jefferson County District Attorneys’ Offices. He has been in private practice in Colorado since 1987. He is president of the Professional Private Investigators Association of Colorado, although he is just representing himself in his comments in this proposed guest editorial.

Many of the investigators in the PPIAC are licensed in other states. Rick is licensed in Kansas via the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. He also carries Errors & Omissions Insurance in the amount of $1 million, something else that isn’t required in Colorado. Given the lack of licensing or any other type of regulation in Colorado, Rick also is president (and principal instructor) of the Private Investigators Academy of the Rockies, a periodic schedule of classes for new and prospective Colorado private investigators.

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