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Private Eyes Behaving Badly

How is the criminal justice system compromised when our investigators need investigating?
(Photo: Ryan Jorgensen - Jorgo/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Ryan Jorgensen - Jorgo/Shutterstock)

Fans of the cheater-catching, baby-daddy-testing, promiscuous-teen-shaming television institution Maury, with Maury Povich,may be familiar with the name David Disney. He’s one of many private investigators who have appeared on the show to offer their services, while, of course, promoting those same services to potential new customers in the show’s audience. But Disney won’t be back on the show for a while, because he’s just been busted for fraud.

According to Jim Norman in The (Bergen) Record, Disney applied for federal disability after a head injury in 2003, saying that he was unable to work, to take care of himself, or “even to concentrate for more than five minutes.” This claim now appears to be false. Disney received thousands of dollars a month for five years, all the while working as a private eye at the rate of about $130 per hour, buying himself a handgun, and, yes, appearing on Maury. He pleaded guilty last week and was sentenced to 23 months in prison.

Now, Disney wasn’t convicted of a crime related to his work as a private investigator, but the irony of his case is that he was busted for just the type of crime that he likely investigates himself. Private investigators perform all kinds of work, from finding out whether someone is cheating on their partner to finding long-lost relatives. Cities and towns hire PIs to check up on public employees, or even to crack down on dog owners who don’t pick up their pets’ poo.

You can't just buy a pair of dark sunglasses, cop shoes, and a nondescript sedan and call yourself a PI; each state has its own exams and license requirements.

One of the more lucrative and steady gigs, though, according to PI’s I have met in the past, are for insurance companies who want to make sure people receiving payments for injuries or illness are telling the truth. For instance, if someone says they can’t work because of a back injury, but a PI snaps pictures of him building a new deck on his house, then he’s probably lying. Who knows, maybe Disney’s lie was revealed by a fellow Dick. (Or maybe his insurance case manager happened to catch him on TV one day?)

According to trade magazine PI, in 2010 there were an estimated 60,000 licensed private investigators in the U.S. You can't just buy a pair of dark sunglasses, cop shoes, and a nondescript sedan and call yourself a PI; each state has its own exams and license requirements. But obviously every industry has its shady characters, and when PIs toe ethical and legal lines, there are consequences.

Joe Nelson at the San Bernardino Sun reported last week on a juicy criminal case that has lately become very complicated by the fact that one side of the legal battle made use of a PI who is herself a criminal. San Bernardino County is accusing several former county officials and a real estate developer of conspiracy and bribery. One of the defendant’s attorneys hired a “prestigious El Segundo-based private investigations firm” to look into the prosecution’s key witness. (The defense apparently wanted to discredit the witness by proving that he was a meth addict.) Great plan so far. But the “prestigious” firm then subcontracted the assignment to a woman with no PI license “and a spotty criminal record.” The amateur private eye, perhaps taking a cue from her peers across the pond, impersonated her target in order to hack into his cell phone records. Now she is facing felony charges.

Experts Nelson spoke to said this type of subcontracting is all too common—private investigation firms maintain clean records but then give their dirty or difficult jobs to less scrupulous players. The firms keep their prestigious reputations, and their clients get the goods along with plausible deniability. Until someone gets caught.

Official license or no, with scruples or without, private eyes are everywhere—that is, anywhere there’s distrust, unanswered questions, and money. In South Korea, the government does not regulate or license the industry, as the U.K. and U.S. both do. But South Koreans sometimes hire private investigators to help them answer questions that they think local law enforcement can’t, or won’t—even when these involve actual crimes.

For a study recently published in the International Journal of Law, Crime, and Justice, Chang-Hun Lee and his co-authors surveyed South Koreans’ attitudes toward their local police forces and measured how those attitudes would impact their likelihood of going to the cops or to private investigators to handle cases they wanted solved. The researchers asked about both criminal and civil cases—not just “cheating spouse” suspicions, but missing-person cases with criminal elements, background checks, cases that would require computer hacking, and so on.

First, the study found, “regardless of types of cases ... citizens who have low levels of satisfaction with police work were more likely to hire PIs to resolve their cases.” Not all that surprising. But the study also found that people with a “desire for personalized justice” are more likely to hire PIs, and that this likelihood correlated “not with attitude toward PI’s morality but with attitudes toward PI’s confidentiality and investigation/information skills.”

In other words, if they want someone to do their dirty work, they don’t care how the dirty work gets done—just that it gets done well. And with plausible deniability. So, the authors conclude, “This finding is particularly important because moral hazard may jeopardize criminal justice system in any country.” That’s an understatement.