DIY Investigations and Warnings of Illegal Tracking Devices in Virginia

Caution for those who perform their own investigations.

Every week, private detective agencies like Morse Investigation Services receive calls from prospective clients who are looking for help. When a client has concerns about their marriage and worries that their spouse may be committing adultery, they’ve often done a little bit of homework before making the call to a private investigator. 

This can take a couple of forms, and be anything from looking through their partner’s phone to waiting for them to leave their email open, or even asking acquaintances and friends to verify something about their partner’s schedule to see if they were where they said they were. It can even just come from a gut feeling that something is wrong.

However, it is not uncommon for spouses to have already done what is essentially a do it yourself (or DIY) investigation. Due to the affordability and ubiquity of consumer electronics, it’s often trivial for someone to purchase small audio recorders and subscription based GPS devices off websites like Amazon. 

What these prospective client’s do not take into account, however, is that the use of both of these items for their personal ends is in fact illegal, and that they may render their case difficult or impossible to investigate before it has even begun. 

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the use of an electronic tracking device without a person’s permission is illegal in all circumstances except for six exceptions. As it happens, the last and sixth exception allows a private investigator at the direction of a client to place an electronic tracking device on a vehicle that is “owned” by the client. In our line of work, “owned” is taken to mean that the client’s name is somewhere on the title, or a company they themselves own is the name on the title for the vehicle. Notice though that there is no exception for a private individual to tag their vehicle for the purpose of conducting an investigation into their marriage as a part of Virginia Code Section § 18.2-60.5.

The law surrounding GPS tracking is so poorly understood that even lawyers have given poor legal advice and have advised their own clients that placing their own tracker is perfectly legal since their name is on the vehicle, despite the fact that the written law does not actually allow for that. 

Perspective client’s have also made their cases even harder by using these devices before they even place a call to a private investigator, because they have often gone out into the field and have been observed by the paramour of a case or caught by their spouse due to recognizing their spouse’s vehicle. Depending on where things are in the marriage (the couple could be in the middle of separation and living apart or could still be living together) the subject may respond by completely changing their usual routing if they cannot determine how their spouse found them at an address they shouldn’t know exists. This often manifests as no longer directly going to the location where the paramour lives, being picked up by the paramour, dropping their car off and leaving it overnight in nearby parking lots, or in rare cases stopping the relationship entirely. Should any of these happen, the added subterfuge simply makes an investigation conducted by a private investigator more difficult and, by extension, often increasing the cost of a typical investigation by 3-4 times more expensive than if you had left it to the professionals. 

More importantly, however, because the use of these tracking devices by non PI’s for personal use and investigations are illegal, the spouse could potentially file for an emergency protective order or take out charges for stalking, if they realize that they must have been electronically tracked in an illegal way.

If you feel that you are the victim of illegal tracking or eavesdropping contact us now for a free evaluation.  

Article written by M. Johnson – Case Manager

As with all matters please consult a legal professional for legal advice.  This article is written without legal opinion and is framed on real life experience and code sections.