On television, detectives make a stakeout look like easy work. Professionals who conduct surveillance in real life know that it involves a lot more than sitting for a half hour in an unmarked car with a cup of coffee and a donut to get the job done. Police detectives aren’t the only ones who conduct stakeouts as part of their everyday jobs. Private investigators track down criminals and missing people, obtain evidence for divorce and insurance fraud cases, and contract with government agencies for surveillance work.
Know the Law
Become familiar with federal and state laws or consult an attorney. It pays to know each state's specific laws. For instance, in many states you cannot be cited for trespassing until you’ve been warned once, so you needn't worry about violating the law unless the owner of the property asks you to leave. If you’re gathering evidence for a court case, know what evidence is admissible. Electronic surveillance without a warrant is illegal. Video surveillance in areas where privacy is assumed, such as a public restroom, also requires a warrant. If you are working as a private investigator, obtain the proper licenses for your city and state.
Identify Your Purpose
Some stakeouts require several weeks of close observation to gather enough evidence to obtain a search warrant. Others require a few hours in a coffee shop to confirm that your client’s wife is conducting an affair. Be clear about the desired result. Will evidence be used to prosecute the subject, or simply to give your client an advantage during divorce proceedings? Compile a file on your subject, including a photo, home and work addresses, type and color of vehicle, and known friends and associates.
Find the Best Location
Scout out the stakeout area for the best locations to observe your subject. Stationary locations, such as a hotel, casino or coffee shop, work well when you know that your subject will be in a public place at a particular time. For instance, if your subject is collecting worker’s compensation but is actively working in construction, a nearby hotel room with a good view of the construction site allows you to prove insurance fraud with photographs. If you’ll need to follow your subject from one place to another, however, mobile surveillance in a car or van is more appropriate.
Conducting a stakeout is long, boring work. You may spend many hours waiting for something to happen, but when it does, you must be ready to obtain evidence. Avoid distractions such as newspapers, music and electronic devices. A few moments surfing the Internet on your cell phone may be long enough to miss your subject as he exits his home and drives away. Stay alert by taking detailed notes about your surroundings, license plate numbers and any suspicious activity. Smart investigators limit their intake of food and drinks during surveillance, because your opportunity to visit a restroom is limited.
Use the Right Equipment
Invest in a digital camera with a powerful zoom lens and video capability. A small, flexible tripod that can be affixed to your steering wheel or a railing helps stabilize the camera for better quality photos. A laptop and cell phone are required for communication and information. Strong binoculars help you perform surveillance without detection. In addition to the best high-tech equipment you can afford, don’t forget a simple note pad and pencil to jot down quick notes. You may be called on to testify about events that occur during your stakeout; don’t assume you’ll remember everything.
- The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating; Steven Kerry Brown
- Cornell University Law School: 50 U.S. Code Section 1802
- Internal Revenue Service Manual: Surveillance and Non-Consensual Monitoring
- Internal Foundation for Protection Officers: Surveillance Concepts and Practices for Fraud, Security and Crime Investigation
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