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