Surveillance 101, Part 2: The Importance of Pre-Surveillance and Knowing if a Subject Has a Lawyer

(Image licensed by Colleen Collins)

(Image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Welcome back! This is part 2 of Surveillance 101, a course we taught  to a professional writers' organization in 2011. I have updated the content for this blog. Link to part 1: Surveillance 101: Staying Legal, Dressing the Part, Prepping the Vehicle.

Please keep in mind that this class content is copyrighted -- if you want to copy, quote from, distribute, etc., please send an email to shaunkaufmanlaw--AT--gmail-dot-com. Also, I have noted if an image is copyrighted, licensed or in the public domain. I do not have the legal authority to release licensed images to others, so please do not copy, etc. Public domain images are copyright-free, so help yourselves.

What Is a Pre-Surveillance?

Unlike what is often seen in the movies, a PI doesn't just drive to some unknown address to conduct a surveillance on the fly with a vague idea of who the subject is. An experienced PI will have studied the area ahead of time, called a pre-surveillance, as well as the subject.

Researching the subject includes learning his/her:

•    Description (we always ask for any good photos as well)

•    Habits

•    Hang-outs (does the target hang out at a favorite happy-hours bar? Go to a gym? )

•    Neighborhood

Studying the site of the surveillance includes identifying:

•    Possible routes the target might take.

•    Alternative action plans should things go awry.

•    Exits and entrances to buildings, parking structures, other locations the subject might enter (or work in, etc.).

•    A cover story, or a pretext, as to why you’re there just in case a nosy neighbor or someone asks (and trust us, if your fictional PI is sitting for hours in a residential neighborhood, chances are some watchdog neighbor will invariably ask).

Often, useful information can be learned via Google Maps, such as the layout of the streets, entrances/exits to gated communities, and so forth. But as great as Google Maps can be, it can't always show entrances and exits to buildings, for example, or possible surveillance spots in a densely wooded countryside. In the past, I've also conducted surveillances so far out in the country, Google didn't even have maps for the area!

Conducting a Pre-Surveillance in the Mountains

A surveillance on a residence in the mountains can be tricky because a PI can easily stand out (image in public domain)

A surveillance on a residence in the mountains can be tricky because a PI can easily stand out (image in public domain)

We once conducted a lengthy pre-surveillance on a home in the mountains. Our client wanted us to check if her husband was bringing home any women while she was out of the country. She and her husband lived in a lovely mountain home that sat on several acres densely forested with trees. Google Maps helped us with main roads into the mountains, but we needed to conduct our pre-surveillance the old-fashioned way: Visiting the area in person.

We Looked for a Remote Spot to Park

Our canine investigator Aretha (image copyrighted)

Our canine investigator Aretha (image copyrighted)

Our pre-surveillance goal was to find a remote spot where we could park and watch the house from a safe distance, using the zoom on our cameras when we needed to take footage. We brought along with us photos (subject's home, husband & his car), and other descriptions of neighbors/landmarks/vehicles our client provided.

The primary residence we were to surveil was nestled in a wooded area, so part of our pre-surveillance was to drive every road possible around that residence, including roads to neighboring residences, to see if there were any public spots that offered a clear view of the house. After an hour or more of driving and checking roads, we didn't find any such spots.

Next, We Conducted a Foot Surveillance

Not finding a convenient spot to park for our upcoming surveillance, we decided to conduct a foot surveillance down a public road that ran next to the property.

We parked our vehicle out of sight from the residence, then walked our dog (AKA canine investigator Aretha) back up the road—as we passed the subject's home, we did a visual check of the property, where cars parked, etc. We also saw where one of the residences on this block was holding a yard sale, which provided us with a convenient pretext (if someone asked why we were hanging around that particular road, we could say we were looking for the yard sale). We also discussed other pretexts we might use during the actual surveillance (that we’re looking for homes for sale, that we’re lost, that we’re meeting a friend who told us to park on this road and he’d meet us there, etc.).

We drove the same routes as the subject from the mountains into town (image is in public domain)

We drove the same routes as the subject from the mountains into town (image is in public domain)

Last, We Drove Routes the Subject Would Be Using

The wife had also provided routes her husband regularly drove -- to an office he rarely visited as he mostly worked out of his home office, and also to a workout club, including the days and times he typically exercised. She said he'd been talking about a woman he'd recently met at the club, and the wife wondered if he might leave the club with her. We did a background check on this woman and learned what car was registered in her name, her age, and other identifying information.

We did a pre-surveillance check of the parking lot of this exercise club to find a good surveillance spot -- and we got lucky! There was a shady spot on a ridge nearby where we had a clear view of the front doors of the club as well as every single car in that lot. While parking on the ridge, we saw the woman's vehicle parked in the lot, which we took a photo of for our records. 

This pre-surveillance took 3 hours of checking locales, plus several hours commuting. By the time we returned to our office, we felt well prepared for our upcoming surveillance.

You can also use the reverse of this in your story -- what if your PI is thrown into an emergency, spur-of-the-moment surveillance and has no idea where the exits to a building are? Or maybe the client was flustered (this happens!) and provided the wrong address.  Such problems can provide tension or even comedic relief.

Next, let’s talk about the importance of knowing if a subject -- the person whom a PI is hired to surveil/interview -- is represented by an attorney.

Has the Subject Retained Counsel?

Before conducting an interview or surveillance, a PI must know if the subject has a lawyer (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Before conducting an interview or surveillance, a PI must know if the subject has a lawyer (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

The legal system has gone to great lengths to protect and enhance the institution and confidentiality of the lawyer-client relationship.  Therefore, if a PI (hired by an attorney) has contact with the subject of a surveillance (or other investigation), and that subject is represented by their own attorney, the PI’s employer-attorney could lose his license to practice law. The legal idea behind this is simply that the boss (the attorney) is ultimately responsible for the employee's (PI’s) actions. In states where PIs are licensed, it may indeed be the case that both the attorney and the PI would be punished for intruding on another attorney-client relationship.

So before beginning a surveillance, a PI working for an attorney always finds out if the subject is represented by their own attorney or not.  How? In our experience, client-attorneys usually know and have informed us. But if a PI is, for example, ready to conduct an interview and doesn't know? He can simply ask the subject. For a twist in your story, a savvy subject might lie to a PI and claim he/she is represented by an attorney (the savvy subject knows the PI can’t talk to him/her, and the PI is therefore forced to go away).

This ends class 2. In a few days, I'll post class 3: Surveillance 101: Picking a Spot, Mobile vs. Stationary Surveillance

Surveillance 101: Staying Legal, Dressing the Part, Prepping the Vehicle

Female PI on surveillance (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Female PI on surveillance (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

During the ten-plus years that my husband and I co-owned a private investigations agency, we conducted dozens of surveillances, easily a hundred or more (I've never sat down to figure out how many exactly). Although I still work part-time as a PI, I don't conduct nearly as many surveillances as I once did for the simple reason I got a bit, well, older. It might sound easy to sit in a car for hours on surveillance, but actually it can be physically and mentally taxing. Your focus can never waver, you sometimes deal with extreme heat or cold during the summer and winter, your body lacks sufficient exercise, and so forth.

Surveillance, however, is a topic many writers are curious about, and which we've presented at different writers' conferences over the years. Below is the first in a series of online classes we presented to writers at the invitation of a professional writers' organization in 2011. I updated the content for this blog.


Please keep in mind this class content is copyrighted. If you’d like to copy, quote from, or otherwise distribute, please send an email to


Within image captions, it is noted if the image is licensed by Colleen Collins or within the public domain. For licensed images, I have paid for the license for my personal use only and do not have the authority to allow others to use, so please do not copy. For public domain images, they are copyright-free so feel free to steal.


Throughout this content, both “he” and “she” are used to refer to a PI (or your fictional PI) rather than always using the cumbersome he/she.

And now let's kick off the class with the question...

All PIs Conduct Surveillances, Right?

Actually, not all, although that’s what many people think. When people learn I work as a PI, they typically ask questions about what it's like to stake out “cheaters.” However, today’s PIs have many different specializations, from legal investigations to personal injury investigations to fraud investigations (those three areas just scratch the surface as there are many other fields of specializations--a comprehensive list of these categories is available on PINow: Types of Private Investigators).

Some investigative specializations rely more on surveillance than others. For example, a PI who works primarily with insurance companies, and/or their attorneys who want to prove the validity of workers compensation claimants’ injuries, will be doing back-to-back surveillance jobs. Other types of investigations that might require surveillance: theft, misconduct, missing persons, even politics. Think about this with your fictional PI—how much surveillance will she be doing in her specialized investigative field? Maybe he’s a legal investigator and people at cocktail parties are always assuming all he does is "chase cheaters," which irks him no end.

Legalities of Surveillances

In this section we'll look at the plain view doctrine and eavesdropping, followed by some ethical no-nos.

Plain View Doctrine

The plain view doctrine is a legal guideline by the high courts that basically says surveillance from publicly accessible areas is acceptable.  Trespassing (such as hiding out on private property without the owner/occupants’ consent) is not acceptable.

What is openly displayed in public is plain view

If an investigator (or police officer) sees something in the open that makes them want to turn an item over or look inside of it, that is not in plain view. They must see what they’re looking for (such as a gun on a table or a stolen violin in its open case) in, literally, plain view. Therefore, if a police officer or PI pushes aside a magazine to see if a gun is underneath it, that gun was not in plain view and can result in disciplinary action for the officer or criminal charges for the PI. 

Using tools can also violate plain view

Colleen recently wrote a story with a PI protagonist. In one scene, the fictional PI was peering into a motel room window, looking for evidence. Because the room was very dark (no lights on), her fictional PI was using a flashlight to see inside. However, by using an artificial aid such as a flashlight, the fictional PI was actually violating the plain view doctrine. If the PI had seen any evidence with the aid of that flashlight, that evidence most likely would not have been admissible in court. So Colleen rewrote the scene so her PI was merely peering inside the window without using any tools, aids, etc.  An editor probably wouldn’t have caught this, but a savvy reader (for example, a police officer, paralegal, lawyer) would have.


Eavesdropping, painting by Théodore Jacques Ralli, 1880 (image is in the public domain)

Eavesdropping, painting by Théodore Jacques Ralli, 1880 (image is in the public domain)

Your fictional PI should be cautious about recording audio during the surveillance unless the persons speaking are in a public setting with no expectation of privacy. Recording of private conversations could result in criminal charges for electronic eavesdropping (on the other hand, you could use this as a plot point—maybe your fictional PI gets charged with electronic eavesdropping and ends up in jail for a night or two just when he’s on the verge of breaking a case).

Other Ethical/Legal No-Nos

Here’s a list of other ethical and legal issues a PI should not commit while on surveillance:

  • A client should never be allowed to ride along on surveillance. Even in states where this would not be illegal, it puts the PI in a position of being responsible for controlling the client and possibly being responsible for the client's actions. On the other hand, you might create some funny scenes if your fictional PI allows his client to join him on surveillance and things get out of hand.

  • A PI should never call a client to inform them of the location where the client’s spouse/significant other is having an illicit rendezvous. Remember the woman who ran over her dentist husband three times in a hotel parking lot? Guess how she knew her husband was there--the PI she’d hired to watch her philandering husband told her. Yes, the PI called her from that hotel with the news that her husband was inside with his girlfriend, and the client-wife raced over in her car, saw her husband in the parking lot and ran over him, backed up and ran over him again, then drove forward and ran over him a third time. The PI videotaped the entire episode! That recording became damning evidence against her at trial.
  • A PI would never trick the subject of a worker’s compensation case into doing things they aren’t supposed to be able to do. For example, the PI would not fake the delivery of a heavy box to coerce the surveillance subject to lift it, or place an obstacle in the subject’s path to see how the subject behaves (testing if the subject can lift his legs to step over it, or bend over to move it, and so on).

When On Surveillance, Blend In

Hardly blending in...unless the PI is at a Halloween party (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Hardly blending in...unless the PI is at a Halloween party (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Just like real PIs, your fictional PI won’t wear clothes that will make her stand out. She’ll wear inconspicuous clothes that blend into the circumstances of the surveillance.  For example, if your PI character is pulling surveillance in the lobby of a 5-star hotel, he might wear dress slacks and shirt, maybe even a tie. If your fictional PI was surveiling someone at a Grateful Dead concert, she’d probably wear jeans and a tie-dyed t-shirt.

When Colleen accepted a series of investigative surveillances for an insurance company (surveiling claimants whose cases for disability, etc. were heading to trial), she knew she’d be sitting for long periods in a van (once 13 hours, no breaks), so she made a point to wear clothes that wouldn’t stand out and were comfortable to wear. For a nighttime surveillance, it’s a good idea to wear dark clothes. Oh, and remember to turn off that dome light! No use dressing in black if your fictional PI opens the door and has a mini-spotlight on her.

Some PIs will even use black duct tape to cover any lighted areas of the interior of their surveillance vehicle (such as an interior clock) during surveillances. It all depends on the circumstances. It could be a dramatic twist if a fictional PI is caught by the surveillance-subject due to some seemingly innocuous detail, such as the light on a dashboard dial casting a faint light on her form.

A Professional Surveillance Vehicle

A PI skilled in doing surveillances doesn’t necessarily need to have a van, although PIs who specialize in surveillances often have their own surveillance vans. But keep in mind the locale—for example, if your fictional PI is conducting a surveillance in a remote country town, he might instead drive a pick-up truck because he'd likely stand out in a big van.

Qualities of an effective surveillance vehicle

Just as a private investigator should blend in with her clothing, so should her surveillance vehicle blend into its locale. The vehicle should be:

  • An unremarkable color that no one remembers clearly.
  • A model that is difficult to identify, both on the street and in court, and easily confused with other makes.
  • Well equipped and well organized (a PI often has to take a video or photo at a moment’s notice)
  • Comfortable (a PI may spend hours in that van or car to capture just a few minutes of damaging evidence).

Surveillance Supplies

Most PIs keep a stash of supplies for surveillances, especially as they never know if they'll be taking off at a moment's notice, and could be spending hours on surveillance in all different kinds of weather.  Here’s a sampling of possible supplies:

  • Full tank of gas
  • Water
  • Easy to eat food, such as granola bars, raisins, trail mix -- avoid salty food because they make a person thirsty.
  • Personal medications
  • A watch, flashlight, blanket
  • A large-mouthed cup (you can guess what this is for)
  • Appropriate changes of clothes for weather and time of day.

This ends class 1 of Surveillance 101. In a few days I'll post class 2, which covers pre-surveillance, picking a location, types of surveillances, and the difference between mobile and stationary surveillances.

Don't Give Out Your Personal Email Address - Use a Disposable One Instead

The other day, I wanted to add my signature for a cause I care about via an online petition. The site required people to submit their email addresses, so I entered a disposable email address. Otherwise, my personal email address could be spammed, added to mailing lists, or even sold by that vendor to other third-party vendors. The latter being one way people's personal email addresses end up in searchable databases.

But it's not necessary to submit your personal email address to any online site that demands it. Instead, create your own "throwaway" email address or use a free disposable email address service.

Throwaway Email Address

I'll use gmail as an example. I have several gmail email addresses: One is my main personal address that I check daily, another is a writing-business addy, yet another is a PI-business addy...and then I have a fourth gmail address, which is a throwaway. 

I use this throwaway email address for online registrations for organizations/services/whatever whose announcements or news I never want to see (or I can log in to that throwaway account to occasionally check them out). You can name this email address whatever you want (such as

Gmail lets you forward emails to other gmail accounts, so if you decide you want to regularly see those throwaway emails, you can set up forwarding from to your personal gmail.

Disposable Email Address

A disposable email address is just as it sounds -- it's an email address that gets tossed, like trash. On these disposable email sites, addresses self-destruct after a short period of time.

Below are three disposable email services -- best of all, they're free. Some also offer paid premium services for snazzier features.

Guerrilla Mail: My personal favorite. Great for online registrations for sites that require an email address and then send you a confirmation link that you must click. Guerrilla provides a temporary inbox so you can do that, then the inbox gets automatically zapped a short while later (currently, Guerrilla keeps the inbox for an hour).

You don't need to register to use guerilla's services, just visit when ready to create a temporary email addy. What's cool about mailinator is when you're on some site that requires an email addy you can make one up on the spot using the @mailinator domain -- for example -- then go check the email later. Yes, that's right -- the instant you write the address, it is automagically created on the mailinator site. NoteMaininator is for receiving mail only. You cannot send mail from mailinator. So you can't use mailinator for online registrations that require you click a confirmation link. Emails auto-delete after 12 hours.

Mailinator requires a Google sign-in and all email is publicly viewable (someone would need to know what email address you've set up, of course). There are also private options, some free, that remove your email messages from the public domain. New customers are required to register a real email address before using this service. The reason I use disposable email services is because I don't like giving away my personal addresses, but the plus for doing so with TrashMail is it offers more features than other similar services. It also states in its privacy notice that it does not sell any customers' personal data, including their email addresses.

Features for free TrashMail:

  • Customize your email address
  • Choose from a variety of domain names
  • Address masking on reply
  • 300 active, disposable email addresses
  • Filter incoming messages with a CAPTCHA
  • Set number of times the customized trashmail addy is forwarded to your real email address
  • Browser extension for Chrome and Firefox.

For $12.99/year, you can have up to 2500 active email addresses, no alias expiration and unlimited forwarding to your real email address, send emails via an SSL-secure webform, and email support. 

Some Sites Block Disposable Email Domains

Personally, I have not yet had a site block a disposable email address I used, but others have complained of this happening. Several of those people suggest using, which requires customers enter their real email addresses for registration (customers then create bogus email addresses that they use on forms, etc.. This bogus email then forwards emails to the person's real address). 


Courthouse Dogs Provide Comfort for Victims

Today my husband was at the Arapahoe Courthouse. He passed by the courtroom where the James Holmes trial is taking place, and in the hallway were two courthouse dogs, a black lab and a Schnauzer. Several children and adults would occasionally hug or pet the dogs, who are specially trained to provide comfort to witnesses and others.

I first learned about courthouse dogs while writing the nonfiction book A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms. I was writing a section on players in the courtrooms when I stumbled upon an article about courthouse dogs (AKA therapy dogs). I had never heard of such dogs being used in the court system before, so I researched their history and learned how the concept began, which dogs are a good "fit" to work with victims of crimes, the work a trainer does with the dog and victim leading up to a trial, and much more. Below is the write-up from the book on courthouse dogs.

Courthouse Dogs: Canine Compassion at Court

(Excerpt from A Lawyer’s Primer for Writers: from Crimes to Courtrooms - All Rights Reserved)

"I center on their healing power within the justice system. There is so much hurt — the victims, families, even members of our office — from exposure to trauma and anxiety…within this environment, the dogs contribute to justice." – King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng

Did you know that as of the writing of this book, there are 60 courthouse dogs (also called facility dogs and advocate dogs) working in 23 jurisdictions throughout the US?

What Is A Courthouse Dog?

These are specially trained dogs that provide emotional support to people who have suffered physical, psychological or emotional trauma as a result of criminal conduct. For example, a courthouse dog might offer comfort to a sexually abused child while he/she undergoes forensic interviews and testifying in court. These dogs will also greet jurors; offer a soothing presence for vulnerable witnesses; provide a sense of normalcy during emotionally charged court hearings; even cuddle and play with troubled teenagers waiting for hearings.

Courthouse dogs truly become a member of the court as they often visit with court support staff, defense counsel, law enforcement officers and judges during the course of a work day.

Criminal justice professions — such as a deputy prosecutor, law enforcement officer, victim advocate, or forensic interviewer — handle courthouse dogs.

Dogs’ Beneficial Effects on People

According to an article in WebMD, people can derive the following benefits from dogs:

  • Reduced blood pressure and/or heart rate.
  • Increased levels of a relaxation hormone.
  • Decreased levels of stress hormones.
  • A sense of belonging.
  • A greater control of one’s life.

Let’s look at the story of a courthouse dog named Rosie.

Rosie, the First Courthouse Dog in New York State

In 2011, Rosie, an 11-year-old Golden Retriever, had her first day on the job as a courthouse dog. Before a court proceeding began, Rosie met Jessica, a 15-year-old girl who would be testifying in court about being raped.

Rosie and Jessica took the stand before the trial began so the jury wouldn’t see Rosie and possibly be influenced by her presence one way or the other. Throughout her testimony, Jessica petted Rosie — at one point, Jessica removed her shoe and buried her toes in Rosie’s fur. When asked by the prosecutor to point out the man who raped her, Jessica froze. Rosie, sensing Jessica’s distress, laid her head in the girl’s lap to comfort her. After a few moments, Jessica was able to point to the man.

Jessica and Rosie had been visiting each other for three months in preparation for Jessica’s trial date. During that time, the girl and dog had become acquainted by playing together, and Rosie had also learned how to tolerate the tight space of a witness box. Her handler would have Rosie sit in front of a barrier that the handler gradually moved closer to the dog until it mimicked being in a box.

The training paid off. With Rosie’s help, Jessica remained calm during her testimony, and the jury found the defendant guilty.

How Rosie Became a Courthouse Dog

Rosie had started out being trained to be a service dog at Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities (ECAD), but when it took her three months to learn how to turn on a light, she was taken out of the program. What’s interesting is that such “service dog drop-outs” often go into other programs, such as training to be an arson or courthouse dog, for which they might be better suited.

Soon after Rosie’s left the service-dog training program, she began visiting the Green Chimneys school in Brewster, New York, where she showed a talent for soothing children who were stressed.

For the next eight years, Rosie moved onto the speech-and-occupational-therapy rooms at Green Chimneys, where children were encouraged to talk to Rosie via 80 verbal commands the dog knew. Rosie also aided the children during their physical therapy by encouraging them to follow her over obstacles.

And then she went to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, where she was trained to work with children during court proceedings.

Sadly, Rosie passed away in 2012, but her legacy lives on through her younger sister, Ivy, who is now an in-house therapy dog at a children’s facility.

-End of Excerpt-

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content (including images owned by Colleen Collins) requires specific, written authority. Other images are licensed by Colleen Collins, who does not have the authority to distribute to others.

June 8-10: Free Book on Private Investigations for Writers!

This is an amazing book and I’m very happy that I got it. The authors cover so much ground about a PI’s life and work, I’d find it hard to get a more thorough overview.
— Allie R.

At my "sister" site Guns, Gams & Gumshoes, we're celebrating our 6-year blogiversary and giving away our nonfiction book for writers How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths. All kinds of info for #crimefiction and #mystery writers, as well as anyone interested in the real world of private investigations.

Book Blurb
The private eye genre has come a long way, baby, with new subgenres — from teenage PIs to vampire gumshoes to geriatric sleuths — attracting new readers every year. Unfortunately, most writers are not aware of the state-of-the-art developments that shape today’s professional private investigator, which sometimes leave writers floundering with impossible and antiquated devices, characters and methods in stories. Which is why we wrote How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths, whose material we culled from our combined decades as private investigators, and also from our teaching online classes and conducting workshops at writers’ conferences about writing private investigators. How to Write a Dick isn’t about how to write a novel, but what you need to know to write an authentic, compelling 21st-century sleuth character or story. 

To Get Your Free Book...

Click on the Amazon link on the right side of the page on June 8, 9 or 10.  

Homicide Investigation Basics

Welcome to the third class, "Homicide Investigation Basics," based on course material that my husband and I taught four years ago to Kiss of Death, the suspense chapter of Romance Writers of America. I have updated and added content for this post.

In this third class, we cover the basics of homicide investigations -- think of it as Homicide 101. We review the key tasks conducted by law enforcement, including an overview about estimating time of death and types of wounds. 

We do not provide any graphic images of crime scenes, although some might find parts of the written information, well, a bit grisly as we discuss things like what occurs in a body after death. Although far more unsavory detail can be found on the Internet, we wanted to advise our readers upfront.

Let's now kick off the class with...

When Police Are Called to a Homicide Scene

All Rights Reserved by Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman.

In general, when police respond to the scene of a homicide, they do the following:

  1. Assess the physical condition (without compromising evidence) of the deceased and insure that emergency medical treatment is on the way.

  2. Watch the scene carefully. Most homicides are unplanned crimes of passion and suspects don’t always have extra time to flee. The officer should look for getaway vehicles/persons hurrying from the area or behaving in a suspicious manner.

  3. Search for surviving victims/suspects.
  4. Protect the crime scene.
  5. If a suspect lives in the same residence or has property rights, a detective will obtain a search warrant before further searching the area.
  6. Obtain names and addresses of witnesses and other persons at the crime scene, license plates of nearby parked vehicles.
    Note: If the victim’s car is missing, its description and license number would be obtained and broadcast to other police agencies.
  7. Check neighboring homes for witnesses who heard or saw anything out of the ordinary.
    Note: The sooner information is obtained from witnesses, the better.  As time passes, especially in high-crime neighborhoods, they may become reluctant to talk.
  8. If there are many witnesses, the key witnesses will most likely be transported to the police station for further questioning (there are more police officers and homicide detectives there and more facilities to keep witnesses separate—separating witnesses is always advisable so their stories aren’t tainted by what they overhear others saying). Meanwhile, statements will continue to be taken from other witnesses at the scene.
  9. The detective in charge will do additional assessment of priorities: Should officers concentrate on an immediate search for a suspect?  Should officers at an airport, bus terminal, or train station be alerted to watch for a suspect? 
  10. Photograph/videotape crime scene.
  11. Detectives assigned to the case will make a quick determination of the victim and the scene to assess the motive for the killing.

Homicides Are Simple

US Army CID agents at crime scene (image is in public domain)

US Army CID agents at crime scene (image is in public domain)

One of our favorite research books is Criminal Investigation by Dr. John Macdonald and Lieutenant Tom Haney, former commander of the Homicide/Assault unit of the Denver Police Department. 

In Criminal Investigation, a seasoned homicide detective, Joe Russell, speaks about the simplicity of homicides:

Homicides are simple; don’t make them hard. It’s seldom an insurance fraud with a hired killer. There are few Mafia killings. They leave their mark, they throw the gun. They know it’s clean, it can’t be traced.  Drug killings will be hard to solve [because] you’re working with a criminal element. Most homicides are within the family, within friends. Keep it simple, look at the people the victim knows. It’s family or friends.

I get upset when I see detectives leave the crime scene and say, ‘I don’t know what happened.’ You’ve got to read the crime scene. You should stay there until you figure it out.

[For example] There was a body of a woman in the hallway by the stairs in an apartment house. People there said someone from upstairs or downstairs must have dumped the body there. She had not been dragged and her body was too heavy to have been carried upstairs or downstairs.  She must have been killed by someone in one of the two apartments on that floor. There was an old man in one apartment, and he would not have been able to carry the body. In the other apartment was a young man who was known for picking up girls. He was the one.

Time of Death

Just as private investigations are both an art and a science, so is predicting the time of death, which requires both technique and observation to make an estimate. The sooner after death a body is examined, the more accurate this estimate will be.

Time of death does more than tell when someone was killed. It can also predict how far the suspect might have traveled after the killing, or it can tell where the victim might have last been seen alive. Your fictional PI will always look at this sometimes inexact calculation. Factors used to estimate time of death include the following indicators.


When the heart stops beating, the blood stops flowing and is then pulled by gravity to the lowest parts of the body where it discolors the skin. This red/purple discoloration is called lividity, which is usually perceptible one-half to two hours after death and reaches its maximum by eight to twelve hours.

Note for writers: Within the first six to eight hours after death, this discoloration can shift along with the body being placed in a different position. But after that, the discoloration becomes fixed and further moving the body will not change its lividity.

Lividity usually has a cherry red color in carbon monoxide poisoning, cyanide poisoning and when the body is refrigerated/exposed to low temperatures.

If lividity shows in the upper surfaces of a victim’s body, the body has been moved. Proving movements after death can help disprove a suspect’s statements.

Rigor Mortis

Soon after death, the body begins to stiffen, which is called rigor mortis and is due to chemical reactions within the muscle cells.  Typically, this can be detected first in the small muscles of the face, neck and hands before progressing to the larger muscles.

Rigor mortis is an unreliable indicator of the time of death because so many factors affect its onset, duration and disappearance.  Usually it begins within two hours after death and becomes perceptible within four hours.  Generally, a body becomes fully rigid around twelve hours after death before the process begins to reverse itself, with rigidity loss beginning again with the smaller muscles before the larger ones.  This is referred to as the flaccid stage of rigor mortis.

Prolonged muscular activity right before death hastens the onset and disappearance, as well as electrocution and heat (from disease/climate). It then disappears when body decomposition begins.

When death occurs during great emotional tension, particular muscles (such as the hand holding a gun) or the entire body can be frozen in position at the moment of death.

Rigor mortis can tell a story about the crime. For example, if parts of an otherwise stiffened body are in an illogical position as they relate to the rest of the body (for example, a body lying on a sidewalk has a raised hand), then the body was most likely moved twelve to thirty-six hours after death. 

Body Temperature

One formula for estimating the time of death is:

Normal body temperature – rectal temperature / 5 = number of hours since death

Another calculation is that, under normal circumstances, a corpse loses body heat at a rate of approximately 1.5 degrees per hour.

Of course, such calculations have limitations as many things can affect body temperature: cocaine (other accelerant drugs), strangling, hanging, brain hemorrhage, exercise and fever all raise the body’s temperature.  Warm surroundings, clothing, bedding and extra body fat delay the rate of cooling.  Exposure to cold lowers the body’s temperature, both before and after death.  Also, environmental temperature may change, due to such things as nighttime and wind chill, thereby affecting the body’s temperature.

Ultimately, the corpse will lose or gain heat until it stabilizes with its environment.

Stomach Contents

The following descriptions of the digestive tract can provide clues about a decedent’s activities, psychological state, whereabouts and time frame prior to death:

  • Empty stomach=death probably occurred at least four hours after the last meal.
  • Small intestines empty=Death probably occurred at least twelve hours after the last meal.
  • Small meal=Gone from stomach within one or two hours.
  • Large meal=Gone usually after five hours.
  • Gastric contents may tell what the subject has eaten, which may provide a clue to where he/she ate.
  • Stress stops digestion.
  • Other factors affecting digestion: Drugs, alcohol, disease, type of food.

Vitreous potassium

Post death, the potassium level rises in the vitreous humor, which is the watery fluid in the eyeball between the retina and the lens.  There are tests that detect the time of death based on this potassium level.  Errors of up to 10 hours are possible when the test is done within 24 hours, with increasing rates after that.


The following shows the general stages of the corpse’s decay process:

  • One to five days after death: greenish discoloration of the skin of the lower abdomen, followed by in order of occurrence:
  • Purple, red, blue discoloration over the body
  • Bloated face, distended body
  • Blisters/vesicles appear on the skin (as body swells, it smells)
  • Bloodstained fluid from orifices.

Insect infestation

In warm to hot weather, it takes only a few seconds for the first flies (blow flies) to land on a dead body outside in a wooded area.  Other insects include ants and beetles.  Maggots hatch from fly eggs in 18-24 hours.  Entomologists studying the eggs, larvae, pupae and so forth may be able to determine time of death.

Footwear impressions left at a crime scene (photo in public domain, photo attributed to Zalman992 on wikipedia).

Footwear impressions left at a crime scene (photo in public domain, photo attributed to Zalman992 on wikipedia).

Types of Wounds

We’ll briefly discuss some general types of wounds: shootings, stabbings and blunt force.


At the scene of a shooting, a detective will look for:

  • The weapon (if can’t be found, detective will analyze the type of weapon and ammunition)
  • The location of the shooter, his distance from the victim, the direction of fire, his intentions/actions after the shooting. Many times certain marks on the skin can tell how close the weapon was to the victim when shot. Stippling and burn marks tell detectives that the shooter was proximate when the killing took place. 
  • Clues (gunshot wounds, anything struck by bullets heading to and after hitting victim, spent bullets and casings, bloodstains, blood spatter and splatter, gunshot residue, witness observations).


Knife wounds occur in close encounters and usually leave a trail of blood.  A cut or slash is longer than it is deep; a stab is deeper than it is long. A person who is dying as a result of exsanguination survives the killing wound much longer than one who is shot. Knife wounds reflect the condition of the blade. As a very general rule, cuts from a knife look smooth and straight whereas cuts resulting from blunt trauma are tattered and ragged.

Homicidal stab wounds are usually on the neck, left chest (as most people are right handed), back or abdomen. Defense wounds (on the palms, fingers and outer aspects of the forearms) point to homicide, indicating the victim tried to either grab the knife or to fend off the blows with his wrists, knuckles or forearms.

If the wounds are concentrated within a small region of the body, it may be that the victim was immobile at the time of assault (for example, held down, asleep or intoxicated). Many severe stab wounds suggest anger, sex homicide or psychosis.

Blunt Force

Attack by a blunt object (such as a revolver, iron bar, baseball bat, piece of wood) may leave its mark and may contain trace evidence.

Blunt force injuries may include abrasions, contusions and lacerations.  Similar injuries result from being struck by a vehicle or falling.

Keep in mind that law enforcement has personnel, departments and equipment set up to handle homicide investigations. As mentioned earlier, information in this section is very high level and meant as an overview only.  For more books on homicide investigations, check out

This ends class 3. In the next class, which I'll post next week, we discuss why a PI might get involved with a homicide investigation. 

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman. Any use of this content requires specific, written authority.

Writing Lessons from the 1949 Film Adam's Rib, Starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

In Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms, we cover the in's and out's of trials, lawyers, courtrooms and a whole lot more, including a chapter dedicated to ten of our favorite legal films and what they can teach writers. Today we're offering an excerpt about the classic film Adam's Rib that featured Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as married lawyers who face off as opposing lawyers in a murder trial.

Book Excerpt

One of Our Top Ten Legal Films: Adam's Rib

Adam's Rib (1949): Starring: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; directed by George Cukor. A courtroom comedy, with a heavy dollop of drama, that features Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as husband and wife attorneys who are on opposite ends of a criminal prosecution: Hepburn is defending a woman who shot her husband; Tracy is the prosecutor.

Note: It’s highly questionable that a district attorney’s office would allow one of its prosecutors to try a case if his wife were the defense attorney. More likely, the DA’s office would cite a conflict of interest and have another prosecutor try the case. Nevertheless, Hepburn’s and Tracy’s opposing counsel roles provide wonderful story conflict. 

Oh, what are you gonna do, object before I ask the question?
— Tracy confronting Hepburn in the courtroom
Adam's Rib Movie Trailer (image in public domain)

Adam's Rib Movie Trailer (image in public domain)

Adam’s Rib, interestingly enough, was based on the real-life story of actor Raymond Massey and his wife Adrianne Allen's divorce. They had hired married lawyers William and Dorothy Whitney, who, after the divorce was finalized, divorced each other and married their clients! Keep in mind that William and Dorothy Whitney were divorce attorneys in private practice — unlike the setup in Adam’s Rib where the husband represented the government, and the wife was in private practice. 

To prepare for the role, Katharine Hepburn and the director, George Cukor, spent time in different Los Angeles courtrooms to pick up details to help make the acting and story authentic. 

Tip for Writers: In general court hearings are open, which means the public may attend. This is an excellent way to learn about the court system, and watch lawyers, judges, witnesses and others in the course of a trial. At times, the court might close a court proceeding to the public if the judge wishes to protect someone’s dignity, such as a child’s or a distressed witness’s. 

Historical Perspective on Adam’s Rib

In 1940, 9 years before Adam’s Rib was filmed, the United States Census identified only 4,447 female attorneys in the US, or 2.4 percent of all lawyers in the country.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US entering WWII, many male lawyers enlisted in the military, which created a void in American law schools. The sudden need for students was filled by women. By 1942, women law students were 4.35 percent of all law students; by 1943, the number of women had increased to 21.9 percent. During WWII, some law firms began hiring women lawyers for the first time, such as the New York firm of Cahill Gordon in 1943, and Shearman & Sterling in 1944. 

According to the article “Adam’s Rib as an Historical Document: The Plight of Women Lawyers in the 1940s,” the number of women in law school began decreasing significantly after WWII, and many women lawyers lost their employment positions to returning American solider-lawyers who were given back their former jobs. Also, many returning serviceman obtained funding via the GI Bill for law school, and by 1947 law schools were again churning out a much higher number of male than female attorneys.

So by 1949 when Adam’s Rib started playing in movie theaters, women lawyers like Hepburn’s character Amanda Bonner were already vanishing in the US.

Click on image to go to book's Amazon page

Click on image to go to book's Amazon page