The COVID-19 outbreak has been and continues to be one of the most disruptive events in modern history. For private investigators, it has been a uniquely challenging time – however, today’s investigators are less constrained by this global crisis than their predecessors likely would have been. Despite several key drawbacks, we can still find the information our clients are seeking.
Corporate Investigators in the Time of COVID-19
COVID-19 isn’t bringing corporate investigations to a complete halt because most of the industry’s professionals spend the bulk of their time behind a computer, not behind a desk waiting for their next client to walk through the door ala Sam Spade. Though investigations require more expertise and savvy than simply having an internet connection, it’s a practice that can flex between work and home. Much of what we need to do our jobs is available through subscription databases or online, meaning we can work from home without much difficulty.
We can search the same public records and press databases, court websites, social media sites and more that we use for research in the office but from the comfort of our own homes. Video conferencing means we can collaborate with our coworkers and conduct team meetings remotely. It’s not quite the same as talking shop face-to-face over doughnuts in the office, but not a bad substitute.
Drawbacks of Work-from-Home Investigative Work
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted two areas that matter to private investigators and the people who hire them.
- In-person interviews. A client recently asked if we could interview people in several locations who might have information regarding pending litigation involving the client. As we explained, with most businesses and government offices shut down due to the virus, the odds of finding anyone to talk to in person were remote. That said, we have been able to conduct video interviews on behalf of clients for whom this approach is sufficient. In some cases, this can be just as effective as an in-person interview – and more cost-effective!
- Court searches. Clients rely on our knowledge and ability to search federal, state and local courts, each with its own approach to making records available to the public. At one end of the spectrum, you have jurisdictions that make records easily available on their websites. You can search for cases online, including orders of protection and other case types that some jurisdictions make available only in person, and they even let you download court records – sometimes, for free.
But at the other end of the spectrum, some jurisdictions either don’t allow any online court records searches or limit searches. These areas with limited or no online court record access range from smaller counties in rural areas to some of the largest counties in the U.S. The only way to search court records in these jurisdictions is in person at the courthouse.
But the vast majority of jurisdictions fall somewhere in between – typically, they allow cases to be searched online, but court records can only be retrieved in person. Given the current COVID-19 restrictions, we’re finding that many courts are closed to visitors or limiting access to a day or two per week, meaning we and other private investigators are unable to access court documents as we normally would.
The Importance of the Physical Case File
The difference between merely knowing a case exists and being able to review records from the case can be profound, and sometimes, can make or break an investigation. For example, we can typically see from an online search that a subject has been through a divorce, but only by obtaining and reading the actual court records have we learned that the subject has been abusive to their spouse, has been accused or convicted of crimes or has a history of substance abuse or financial problems. We wouldn’t know this important information based on just reading an online case citation or docket. Figuring out that a court case exists is a start, but it’s in being able to read the full story behind the case that the most useful investigative findings are often found.
As investigators, it’s frustrating to know that court records in some jurisdictions are off-limits for now, though we make sure to let our clients know about these limitations when we do encounter them, and our clients certainly understand that they are a sign of the times. Fortunately, we can sometimes find details of court cases through other means that are still available to us, such as press reports or social media. Being a professional investigator often means being resourceful when facing obstacles to information, and this crisis certainly qualifies.
As private investigators who focus on public records research, we are certainly affected by the coronavirus outbreak, but we’re still able to provide our clients with all or most of the information they are looking for, even if a few pieces of the puzzle may be missing.