Surveillance 101, Part 5: Keeping Logs, Going Country and Fighting Tedium

(Image licensed by Colleen Collins)

(Image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Welcome back to Surveillance 101, a series of classes my husband and I taught in 2011 to a mystery writers' group. I've updated course information for this blog, and added new material as well.


All content is copyrighted, so please do not copy, distribute, and so forth. Within the captions of photos, I note if it is copyrighted, licensed or within the public domain. The only photos you are free to copy/use are those marked as public domain. 


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

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

Surveillance 101, Part 3: Picking a Spot, Difference Between Mobile vs. Stationary

Surveillance 101, Part 4: Tips and Tricks About Mobile Surveillances

In this class, we cover surveillance logs, rural surveillances, and watching out for tedium.

Keeping a Surveillance Log

PIs take surveillance notes in a variety of ways, from handwriting notes to leaving voice messages

PIs take surveillance notes in a variety of ways, from handwriting notes to leaving voice messages

We like to keep a surveillance notebook handy in our vehicle. It’s easier in the long run, we’ve found, to jot down pertinent notes rather than dictate information into a recorder because later, as we’re writing the report, playing and replaying a recording can become time-consuming versus simply reviewing handwritten notes. Yes, even in this electronic age some old-fashioned means work best.

Some PIs use sheets with tables, some make notes in their smartphones, or once in the dark when Shaun couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, much less what he was scribbling on a notepad, he called home and left short surveillance-status messages on our office voice messaging (which he later listened to as he wrote up the report). Whatever medium a PI uses, here’s a sampling of data she'll document during a surveillance:

  • Time, weather, location at start of surveillance
  • Time of any action by the subject (and what he/she might be wearing, their behavior, etc.)
  • Record of subject’s actions
  • Addresses where subject goes
  • Description of people meeting with the subject (includes vehicles & license plates).
It's critical to plan ahead for a rural surveillance (image is in the public domain)

It's critical to plan ahead for a rural surveillance (image is in the public domain)

Rural Surveillance

Below are some tips if your fictional PI conducts a surveillance in the country:

Know the area

Here in Colorado, we have some big stretches of country outside “the big cities.” When we’re going into a rural area, we’ll check online maps (for example, MapQuest, Google Earth) -- have your fictional PI do the same. 

On the other hand, if you’re looking for more conflict in your story, have him circling around and attracting unwanted attention in that small town!

Use an appropriate vehicle

Maybe your fictional PI scoots around town in a lime-green VW, but that dog won’t hunt in the country. In a small town, everybody knows everybody else, including what car they drive. A PI will drive a vehicle that blends in, is nondescript, and can handle the terrain. This ties in with information in the previous class about surveillance vehicles (a pick-up truck makes more sense in the country, for example). Another tip: A sparkling, shiny-clean vehicle can also stand out -- vehicles get dusty and dirty driving around the country.

Why is the PI parked there?

When conducting a rural surveillance, a PI doesn't want to stand out as a city slicker trying to look country (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

When conducting a rural surveillance, a PI doesn't want to stand out as a city slicker trying to look country (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

A PI can be parked on a country public road and document whatever he sees “in plain view” — but he’d better have a good reason for being there if someone asks. Most PIs keep props ready, such as binoculars and a bird guide (pretending she’s a bird watcher), car-repair tools (pretending he’s fixing his car), and so on.

A side note here about bird watching. A writer friend, whose husband is an FBI agent, laughed at the idea of a PI pretending to be a birdwatcher. "My husband says that cover is ridiculously cliche, and clues the locals in that you're really a snoop." Which presents some fun ideas for a story:

  • The PI, who never heard bird watching is an obvious cover, puts great effort into faking watching birds (wearing the clothes, reading books about birds, invests in special binoculars) and gets instantly burned (meaning "outed" as really being a private detective). 
  • The PI blows off her PI-buddy's warning about never using the old-as-the-hills birdwatching cover, and pulls off a masterful surveillance using the guise, irking her pal no end.
  • A PI goes out of his way to create a unique cover only to get burned by a local who says his guise was pretty obvious...shoulda tried birdwatching as that would've fooled people.

Look the part

Just as a PI wears clothes appropriate to a city location, he’ll wear clothes that blend in to that part of the country/season. When we did a rural surveillance in Colorado, we wore jeans, t-shirts, boots (it was winter), jackets.  

Choose useful equipment

It’s always iffy if a cell phone will have adequate transmission in remote areas (which can add a twist to your story), but other equipment can be selected for rural surveillance (cameras with increased optical zoom, video equipment that is functional, portable, and low profile). 

Surveillance, the Glamorous Life (Not)

We’ve discussed a PI’s clothing, supplies, logistics, vehicles, and techniques, but there’s another aspect to surveillance: the tedium factor.  As one PI put it, surveillance is “95 percent boredom and 5 percent panic and fear.” During those long stretches where nothing is happening (the 95 percent boredom part), some real-life PIs get into trouble thinking they can wile away the time by watching DVDs, reading books, or other distracting entertainment. All it takes is a few seconds for a subject to appear…and disappear. A PI focused on anything other than the subject can easily, within those few seconds, lose him/her. 

On the other hand, you can make this a funny bit in your story that every time your fictional PI decides it’s okay to pick up that novel while on surveillance, he misses the subject again!

Next class, we'll cover PIs' health concerns during surveillances, and the good, bad and illegal of GPS tracking.



Coming Soon: How Do Private Eyes Do That? Second Edition.  


Surveillance 101, Part 4: Tips and Tricks About Mobile Surveillances

(image licensed by Colleen Collins)

(image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Welcome back to Surveillance 101, a series of classes my husband and I taught in 2011 to a mystery writers' group. I've updated information for this blog, as well as added new material.


All content is copyrighted, so please do not copy, distribute, and so forth. Within the captions of photos, I note if it is copyrighted, licensed or within the public domain. The only photos you are free to copy/use are those marked as public domain. 

Links to Classes 1 - 3

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

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

Surveillance 101, Part 3: Picking a Spot, Difference Between Mobile vs. Stationary

In class 3, we briefly described the difference between mobile and stationary surveillances. For class 4, we'll start off with a more detailed discussion of mobile, or rolling, surveillances.

Mobile Surveillance

There are various types of mobile surveillance, which is a surveillance that is, literally, mobile, AKA a "rolling" surveillance. Mobile surveillances might be on foot, riding a bicycle or skateboard, in a boat, but typically mobile surveillances occur in a car, van, pick-up truck, and so on. 

This type of surveillance might be used when:

  • The PI is following a target to an unknown destination.
  • When there’s nowhere for the PI to sit and wait.
  • If the subject may be alert to a stationary surveillance.

Next, we'll look at different vehicle/PI configurations.

One Vehicle/One Investigator

When on a mobile surveillance, a PI keeps certain items handy, such as a camera, binoculars, change of attire (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

When on a mobile surveillance, a PI keeps certain items handy, such as a camera, binoculars, change of attire (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

There are investigators who swear that a one-person mobile surveillance is a recipe for failure (one PI gives it a 5% success rate). From our own experience, we can vouch that a one-person mobile surveillance is tough. You’re watching traffic and pedestrians and intersections and traffic lights and regulatory traffic signs...all while your subject is weaving and gunning it through rush-hour traffic and…

You just lost him.

We inform prospective clients that the success rate of a two-person surveillance significantly increases the chances of success, but some people aren’t keen to pay two investigators for a surveillance job. In our business, we work to be fair with our billing as a compensation (if both of us are working a surveillance and we haven’t seen the target in 4 hours, we might bill for only one investigator, for example).

Nevertheless, there are circumstances where one of us ends up doing a solo mobile surveillance, sometimes by accident. Such as in the following case.

Following a Felon Through 3 Counties

A few years ago, an attorney hired us to serve legal papers to a felon. One of those jobs that had to be done that day. Fortunately, the lawyer knew the guy would be driving out of a gated area around noon. Obviously we couldn't walk up to his moving car and try to serve papers, so we prepared for a two-vehicle surveillance, planning to follow him to his destination where we'd serve the papers.

We conducted a quick pre-surveillance

We did a check of the area with Google Maps, then we drove ahead of time to the area to check for any traffic detours, blocked roads, and so forth. Previously, we had tried to dredge up information about where he lived in several proprietary databases, but it was as if he were a ghost -- only some outdated addresses displayed. Considering he had a serious rap sheet, he might have taken extra precautions to hide where he lived, such as renting out a room in someone's house, or perhaps he had moved in with a girlfriend, or who knew? 

We waited for Mr. Felon

My husband and I waited in our separate cars for Mr. Felon to exit the gated area (the lawyer had provided a physical description of the guy and what kind of car he'd probably be driving). One of our cell phones was out of commission, so my husband and I were communicating via walkie talkies. For those who might be unfamiliar with walkie talkies, they're two-way radios that communicate via a single, shared frequency band. Today, walkie talkies have cool features like headsets, ranges up to 50 miles, hands-free operation and more. Not so with our clunker walkie talkies. They were cumbersome to use, hissed loudly when we connected, had a 8-mile range, and we had to press a button to talk (not easy when you're driving at the same time). As the attorney called us at the last minute with this it's got to be done now case, we were stuck with our old walkie talkies.

I followed him for miles down a lonely stretch of country road, wondering if he'd caught on that I was following him (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

I followed him for miles down a lonely stretch of country road, wondering if he'd caught on that I was following him (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

We saw the car the lawyer had described exit the gated area, and the guy behind the wheel also matched the description. We began following Mr. Felon in our separate cars, one of us in front of our subject, the other following our subject. Some PIs call this style of rolling surveillance "leapfrog" as the PIs will swap places throughout the rolling surveillance, one taking over the lead, the other falling back and following. This way, a subject doesn't always see the same car following. I write more about leapfrogging later on.

Unfortunately, leap-frogging failed because...

We lost each other

When Mr. Felon turned on a side street, I followed, but my husband got caught in a rush-hour traffic jam.  Soon after, I was outside of the 8-mile range of our walkie talkies.

I'll skip over the next few hours and just say that through some miracle, I successfully conducted a one-person mobile surveillance through three counties, all the while tracking the felon, and ultimately tagging his final destination. To be honest, I started to sweat when Mr. Felon drove into the countryside where it was only the two of us on a single, long strip of road. I stayed far behind him, but still, we were the only vehicles on that road for at least 15 miles. Finally he turned down a short dirt road to an old home. I drove past, parked farther down the road and checked out his stopping point with my binoculars. Looked like a Sons of Anarchy barbecue. Lots of parked motorcycles, people laughing & drinking beer, smoke rising from several grills, women on the porch chatting. 

Looked safe. I drove to the house, parked and got out of the car (the papers were out of sight in a pocket). I walked up to Mr. Felon who was standing with a few of his buddies, who turned and looked at me as I approached. I said Mr. Felon's name, and he answered, "Yeah, that's me." I served him the papers, the he asked, “How’d you find me?”

I'll never forget that. The only reason he didn't notice my following him across three counties has to be that he's...well, not very observant. This is the kind of rolling surveillance one sees all the time in movies--the PI successfully following someone for hours--but in reality, it's a rare occurrence.

One Vehicle/One Investigator

Now let’s cover some tips for your fictional PI conducting a one-vehicle, one-investigator mobile surveillance:

  • Have her stay in the right lane most of the time. If that’s not possible, use the center lane (that way, your PI can respond to either a right turn or left turn at the last moment).
  • If it's a night surveillance have him disable the dome light. As mentioned in a previous class, some PIs put black tape over any miscellaneous interior lights as well (digital clocks, etc.).
  • While following, have your PI try to keep one car between him and the vehicle he’s following.
  • Rather than stop directly behind the subject at a red light, see if there is a parking lot to pull into until the light changes.

If your fictional PI is conducting the surveillance with an associate, think about using two characters in the vehicle (one to drive & one to watch the subject—the observer can then be used for foot surveillance if necessary). My husband and I once did this in a crowded downtown area. Traffic was at a stand-still, so I got out of the car and walked around, keeping an eye on the subject and staying in contact with my husband via cell phone.

Two Vehicles/Two Investigators

Here’s some tips for your fictional PI and an associate conducting a two-vehicle, two-investigator mobile surveillance:

  • If your fictional PI has a good idea where the subject is going, he might travel in front of the target’s vehicle (be the lead) while his associate travels behind the target’s vehicle.
  • Using radios, the lead unit stays fairly close to the subject (no more than three or four cars in front). If the trailing unit sees the subject signal for a turn, he can radio the lead unit in time for it to make the same turn ahead of the subject.
  • Play leapfrog: If the trailing unit gets cut off by a missed light or some other obstacle, he can radio the lead unit to drop back and behind the subject. The cut-off unit can then, by following the instructions radioed by the still in-contact unit, cut through side routes and place himself in front of the subject a few blocks down the road. Similarly, the lead and trailing units swap places while following the subject. First, the lead unit drops back behind the subject and just in front of the trailing unit.The trailing unit then speeds up and places himself in front of the subject.  

This ends class 4. Next class, we'll discuss surveillance logs, rural surveillances and health issues on lengthy surveillances.

Surveillance 101, Part 3: Picking a Spot, Difference Between Mobile vs. Stationary

(image licensed by Colleen Collins)

(image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Welcome back to the third article in the Surveillance 101 series. This content is based on a set of courses we taught in 2011 to a mystery writers' organization -- I have updated and added material for these posts.

Links to previous classes

To read the first two articles, click on a link:

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

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

A few notes on copyrights

  • Class content is copyrighted. If you wish to copy, quote from, distribute, etc., please write shaunkaufmanlaw=AT=gmail-dot-com
  • Images are noted as being copyrighted, licensed or in the public domain within their captions. Sorry, I don't have the authority to allow licensed images to be copied, distributed (etc.); however, any image in the public domain is copyright-free & yours for the taking.

Now let's start the class with an introduction to picking a surveillance spot.

Picking a Location

The focus of this section is on a surveillance conducted in a parked vehicle, although certain tips can certainly apply to sitting somewhere outdoors, too. Prior to the surveillance itself, a PI typically scopes out the area via Google Maps and/or an on-site pre-surveillance check (we write about pre-surveillances in post 2). In scoping out the neighborhood, a PI will pick a few primo spots to park the surveillance vehicle. I always like to have a few spots in mind -- never know when the #1 location is taken or there's people/kids congregated near it.

What Makes a Good Surveillance Spot?

Parking in front of a house for sale can work for a short-term stationary surveillance (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Parking in front of a house for sale can work for a short-term stationary surveillance (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

  • Keep Your Distance. Although it’s important to position oneself in a location close enough to the subject’s location to monitor activities, keep as much distance between you and the subject as possible!
  • Multiple Days, Multiple Vehicles. In a lengthy, days-long surveillance, it’s wise to use more than one vehicle (we’ll sometimes rent a different vehicle from a local car rental agency, who have told us they have other PIs as clients who do the same thing).
  • Pick a Shady Spot. Vehicles are less noticeable in shady areas then in bright sunlight.
  • Select a Spot "Buried" Between Other Vehicles, if Possible: A vehicle sitting by itself is more noticeable than one in a string of parked cars.
  • Park on a Hill, if Possible: If there's a nearby "rise" in the terrain, have your fictional PI check it out as a suitable surveillance spot -- hills and higher terrains can give a bird's eye view of the area being surveilled.
  • Check for Overhead Views: When pre-selecting a surveillance spot, it's wise to check what people might see from overhead into the PI's vehicle (for example, is there a high-rise where residents can easily look down and see what's on the seats, dashboard, etc. of the surveillance vehicle?).

All of the above pre-surveillance tips can also be used in reverse -- your fictional PI, for example, might have forgotten to check for overhead views, and a snoopy building resident grabs a camera with a zoom lens and sees the name of the subject on a file in the PI's front seat.

Two additional tips

  • Park sitting "away" from the area being surveilled: A PI is less conspicuous if he/she is facing in the opposite direction of what they are surveilling (the PI then conducts the surveillance by viewing the building, etc. in the rear-view mirror, side mirrors).
  • Stay in the vehicle: It only draws attention to the PI when he sticks an arm out the window, gets out to stretch, or has a pizza delivery guy show up with a hot pizza for dinner (believe it or not, there was a case where a real-life PI did this, and he got seen by the subject, big surprise).
(image copyright 2011 Colleen Collins)

(image copyright 2011 Colleen Collins)


Although there are all kinds of equipment and spyware a PI might use for surveillance, keep in mind the principle reason surveillance is done is to record the activity of the target. A PI’s equipment might be top-of-the-line, expensive and complicated, but the bottom line is the PI needs to watch, record, and preserve his observations so they can be attested to in a report and even in court. That said, a simple camera and a notepad can produce devastating results in surveillance. 

Types of Surveillance

Your fictional PI has done her pre-surveillance (and picked one or two advantageous spots), checked that her gear is ready, planned her clothes (plus any additional disguises), double-checked the target’s schedule. What type of surveillance will she carry out -- will she be sitting and watching, or will she be prepared to follow the subject in her vehicle? The next section highlights both approaches.

Stationary Surveillance

This is just what it sounds like. Stationary. Typically, sitting in a vehicle. Or, for example, if the target is trysting in a hotel, the PI may sit for hours in that hotel lobby. Some PIs call this “fixed” surveillance as in being fixed in one spot. Sitting for hours on end can be tedious and brain-numbing, so it requires a lot of patience, determination and focus. Especially focus. A PI can’t afford to let his attention wander because he might miss those critical few minutes when the target makes an appearance.

Colleen once sat for several hours, waiting for a subject to appear. At one point, she leaned over into the back seat to pick up a notebook, and when she straightened, the subject had parked his car and was almost inside the front door of his home! All those hours of waiting and one, seven-second reach into the backseat meant she'd lost an opportunity to take a photo. She sat and waited another hour for the target to exit his home, and luckily, got the necessary photos then.

Mobile Surveillance

There are various types of mobile surveillance, which is a surveillance that is, literally, mobile (might be on foot or on a bicycle, but typically while in a car, van or other vehicle). Some PIs call this “rolling surveillance.” This type of surveillance might be used when:

  • The PI is following a target to an unknown destination.
  • When there’s nowhere for the PI to sit and wait.
  • If the subject may be alert to surveillance!

This ends class 3. In our next class, we’ll discuss mobile surveillance with one vehicle/one investigator and two vehicles/two investigators. 

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. The next class covers picking a surveillance spot, and the difference between mobile and stationary surveillances.

New Release June 2016: How Do Private Eyes Do That? (Second Edition) 

"A must-have for any writer serious about crafting authentic private eyes. Collins knows her stuff." ~Lori Wilde, New York Times Bestselling Author

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 as a legal investigator for several law firms, 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 post.


Please keep in mind this class content is copyrighted. If you’d like to copy, quote from, or otherwise distribute any content from an article, please contact me via this site. 


Within image captions, it is noted if the image is copyrighted, licensed, or within the public domain. Please do not copy, distribute or otherwise use any copyrighted or licensed images. Feel free to use any public domain images.


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. Class 2 covers pre-surveillance, picking a location, types of surveillances, and the difference between mobile and stationary surveillances.

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.