Skip to main content

No License, Sherlock: Licensing for Private Investigators


What does a private investigator do? Surely, we’re all familiar with various movies and shows featuring the exciting adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Magnum PI. However, reality is often disappointing, and the fact is private investigation is usually dull and relatively safe. Private investigators are tasked with conducting surveillance and fact-finding missions for their clients, but they gain no special powers to do so. My recent paper deals with the licensing of private investigators.

Oklahoma’s private investigator licenses are governed by the Council of Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET), which follows the advice of a committee made up of people who run private investigative agencies. Improved competition is not likely to be in the best interest of these agencies, so it is questionable whether they should be in a gate-keeping position they could easily turn to their advantage. Private Investigators must undergo a series of trainings and pass an exam to gain their license, followed by continuing education requirements to maintain it. These mandated trainings go over generally applicable laws, which everyone has to follow, and how to conduct an investigation, training which could easily be conducted by investigative agencies in an on the job setting.

Advocates of licensing promote it as a protection for consumers. The 1889 Institute considers licensing an option only if the occupation meets two conditions: 1) it is likely people will be significantly harmed if the occupation is not appropriately practiced and 2) there some civil law or market failure that prevents consumers from making sound judgments regarding service-providers’ quality, such as by gathering information on practitioners themselves. In this instance, neither requirement is met. Even if these two preconditions are satisfied, licensing would have to be the least restrictive means available to regulate the occupation.

As noted above, private investigators themselves face few occupational hazards and pose fewer dangers to the public. Armed, they are likely much less dangerous than your average Joe with a gun, who has constitutional carry rights in this state and is much less likely to consider potential liability issues than a private investigator. Even looking at high profile cases of wrongdoing by private investigators, they acted that way with a license. California’s strict licensing requirements didn’t stop Anthony Pellicano, a licensed private investigator, from engaging in numerous crimes such as wiretapping, racketeering, and identity theft. Private investigators who are willing to break the law will do so with or without the license. It makes little sense to limit the number of law-abiding investigators to prevent amoral investigators who are not fazed by licensing requirements.

Investigative agencies and private investigators build a reputation as they ply their trade. And consumers are free and able to seek out information on this reputation. Although even this is likely not necessary, merely requiring private investigators to be registered with the state and be bonded would be enough to ensure consumer safety. Bonding ensures the availability of funds to compensate victims of incompetent investigations. Additionally, a consistently ill-behaved private investigator would struggle to stay bonded. Bonding enforcement does not require licensing.

So why are private investigators licensed at all? Before 1988, they weren’t. But, the Oklahoma Private Investigator Association (OPIA) was formed in 1984. They proudly trumpet themselves as the “strongest political voice in Oklahoma for the investigative profession.” No doubt, they had a hand in the 1988 act that licensed the profession. Private security was the other industry regulated by that act. Employment of private security guards outstripped law enforcement long ago, and law enforcement officers hold a rather low opinion of private security. OPIA likely saw a push to regulate the private security sector as an opportunity to tack on their own government granted protections. This protectionism is apparent from the fact that, by law, the advisory committee for private security and private investigators must include a representative of OPIA. OPIA and the investigators they represent have very little desire to improve competition in the market. Such an act would hurt their bottom line. The suppression of competition hurts consumers in all industries and is certainly not a proper function of government. 

Under Oklahoma law, Sherlock Holmes would be buried under fines, Thomas Magnum would be in jail, and Veronica Mars would have never received a license. As a result, all their clients would be worse off. While their cases are less exciting, real people are worse off due to the licensing of private investigators. TV is filled with shows about amateur sleuths who, because they don’t accept payment, never run afoul of private eye licensing laws. If there are any of those amateurs out there, who have a talent and a desire to do such work, shouldn’t they have a chance to take payment if the opportunity arises without first paying what amounts to a tax to get licensed?

Spencer Cadavero is Research Associate at 1889 institute and can be reached at scadavero@1889institute.org.




Popular posts from this blog

How to Fix OKC’s Transit: Get Rid of It

As a new resident of Oklahoma City's downtown, I have had the "privilege" of getting acquainted with the city's public transit system. I don't have a car, so I rely on alternative means of transportation; so far, none of the public options have impressed me. The streetcar is pretty, but I walk faster than it generally moves to my destinations and have yet to benefit from it. The buses aren't much better, so I have resorted to private solutions like Lyft to get around town. 
Unfortunately, my experience with OKC's public transit system isn't unique. Sadly, public transportation often doesn't work all that well, especially given the cost. Only 20 percent of OKC residents are satisfied with the city's public transportation system, according to OKC's most recent survey of residents. Any private sector service with numbers that low would be starved for business, creating room in the market for a better company to provide service to consumers. Ho…

Muddy, Shallow Thinking Versus Clarity in Education Reform

Monopolies are the best! If we are to gain maximum efficiency and create the greatest value for people, monopoly is the way to go. Competition creates administrative inefficiency since instead of one set of managers, there are as many as there are companies, and all of them cost money. Competitive companies make products that do the same basic things, but waste resources by making products with different features. Standardized products would save money. Were research and development under one roof, instead of many competitive ones, researchers could coordinate more closely, saving money and ultimately being even more innovative. Monopolies would therefore benefit everyone.
Everything in the first paragraph is, of course, balderdash. Monopolies, especially those created by government, stifle innovation, develop bloated management, produce too little at low quality, and charge too much. Why? Because they can. They’re monopolists. Without competition and with nearly guaranteed profits, t…

Lack of Transparency by the Oklahoma Supreme Court Continues to Amaze

Squirrels hide acorns for the winter by burying them in the dirt. It is somewhat amusing to watch squirrels in Florida engage in this little ritual, since they live in a place where there is no winter coming. It’s just what squirrels do. They are programmed to hide their nuts.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court seems to have a similar modus operandi: the Court’s default is to hide its actions from public view, even when there is no reason to. Allow me to explain.
The Court recently heard a legal challenge to an initiative petition that seeks to change how Oklahoma draws its legislative and congressional districts (spoiler alert for a future post: the redistricting initiative is a terrible idea). The Court scheduled the case for oral argument on January 21 of this year in the ceremonial courtroom in the State Capitol building.
This may sound routine, but for the Oklahoma Supreme Court, it is notable. Unlike most appellate courts in the country, the Oklahoma Supreme Court very rarely grants oral a…