Conducting a Surveillance  

By Jody Ball

"When a surveillance is conducted, use a vehicle which is inconspicuous. Flashy cars in loud colors draw attention. Try to blend into the area. Use a different vehicle from time to time. Consider having the vehicle's windows tinted. This is a great help in avoiding being recognized or being detected while using a video camera."

The most expensive and time consuming activity of the private investigator will be that of surveillance. However, videotaped surveillance can be some of the most convincing evidence. If your surveillance will involve videotaping, be sure the taping is done by a competent person. He must be reputable,skillful and aware of the limitations of this activity. He may be called to testify in court in regard to the surveillance and what steps were taken in obtaining the video. Improperly conducted surveillance can result in tort liability.

The investigator conducting the surveillance must be careful to avoid harassing the subject of the surveillance. He must not invade the subject's privacy, cause the subject to feel threatened, or cause a disruption to his life.

The details of a surveillance must be carefully recorded concerning all persons and vehicles involved. This record should also include information concerning the types of camera, video recorders, and film used.

If the methods used during a surveillance are questionable and intrusive, this could mean that the effort and expense of obtaining the evidence are useless and a deterrent to the investigation.

A surveillance should be well planned. A surveillance that is too short may result in missing key evidence, one that is too lengthy may result in the investigator being observed. Either case means wasted time and funds of the client.

Surveillance is usually conducted for 2 to 4 hours. Any longer surveillance must be at the direct request of the client who is made aware of the expense involved beforehand. Avoid continual surveillance if at all possible. You will be spotted by someone.

If hours of videotaping are involved, this may necessitate editing. No one is going to sit and watch hours of a vehicle that sets unoccupied in a driveway, etc. However, if you do edit the film, maintain the entire original videotape and all photographs to avoid the accusation of biased editing. Always avoid sound on videotapes which can include unintended or unprofessional remarks.

Surveillance requires patience and a willingness to experience the discomfort of sitting in a vehicle for a prolonged period of time. A second person is helpful to have along should you need to go to a restroom or go for something to eat or drink. You should consider taking snacks and drinks with you as well as checking out the nearest facilities of convenience. Wear comfortable clothing and avoid drinking too much liquid. It goes without saying that you would not consume alcohol during a surveillance or at any other time during the course of an investigation.

You may wish to invest in a cellular phone. This is a valuable piece of equipment to an investigator on surveillance. The cellular phone eliminates the need to leave the site of the surveillance to make phone calls while allowing you to stay in touch with your office.

Before a surveillance is to take place, you should attempt to obtain a photograph or at least a description of the person or the vehicle you are to observe. Make sure the subject is going to be in town. The description of a vehicle should include the license plate number, if possible.

When a surveillance is conducted, use a vehicle which is inconspicuous. Flashy cars in loud colors draw attention. Try to blend into the area. Use a different vehicle from time to time. Consider having the vehicle's windows tinted. This is a great help in avoiding being recognized or being detected while using a video camera.

In addition to avoiding loud colors, you should also avoid loud mufflers. Your exhaust system should be in perfect condition. You can easily be asphyxiated sitting in an enclosed car with a leaky exhaust system. You can also become quite uncomfortable in cars without working heaters or air conditioners during extreme hot or cold temperatures.

Make sure your vehicle is mechanically sound and dependable. You may want to pretend to have car trouble as a reason for being on the side of the road, but you don't want to be stuck there if the need to follow the subject should arise. Consider also that a car with visible damage on the exterior will be noticeable. There are magnetic signs to make it appear that you are in some type of business. However, if these signs are used day after day, they will become more of an attraction than a disguise.

Along with a good camera, you will want to invest in a good distance lens. You will not get many close-up shots of your target. Cameras can be disguised in purses or briefcases, or simply hidden behind a newspaper with a hole torn in front of the lens.

Make sure you are familiar with the area where you are to conduct surveillance. If this is not possible, carry a city map with you to avoid becoming hopelessly lost in a neighborhood and drawing attention to yourself by endless circling. Do not ask directions to a particular address. You may be talking to the subject's neighbor or best friend who will promptly relate your inquiry to your target.

If you are approached by the police while on surveillance, it is best to tell the truth of why you are there and end your surveillance at that time. It is much better to become adept at being inconspicuous than at lying. It is not against the law to conduct a surveillance that adheres to legal guidelines. It is not likely that you will be arrested. However, if you are trespassing on private property or causing concern by your presence, you need to find another site. Do not argue with the officer, you will attract attention to yourself and you could go to jail.

Surveillance must be conducted in public and surveillance at night is to be avoided. There is to be no intrusive surveillance on the property of the subject. This is trespassing and is against the law. There must not be any form of entrapment used, such as causing a flat tire to see if the subject will come out to fix it. Do not break out anyone's taillight to make it easier to tail his car. This is movie P.I. stuff. Avoid personal contact or communication with the target.

Obey all laws. Do not feel justified in speeding to follow a vehicle. If you lose your subject, you can pick him up another time. An investigator is never justified in crossing the line of legality in his pursuit of evidence.

When a surveillance is conducted, a person will usually claim they were harassed and their privacy invaded. Make certain that any surveillance is done within legal guidelines and reasonable techniques were used. The courts have found it to be reasonable to follow a vehicle on public streets during daylight hours, observing activities from a parked car, and videotaping a person who engages in activities on his property that is visible to persons passing by.

Not every surveillance will be successful, you will make mistakes, everyone does. But, you can learn from your mistakes and gain valuable experience from the assignment. Remember the things that worked for you and those that didn't. The two most important things you can do is to make detailed records and obtain photographs when possible.

Discuss each surveillance with your other employees. Exchanging ideas can lead to new approaches and fewer mistakes in your next surveillance. It can also help train others in conducting a surveillance.