Bogart and Bacall, The Big Sleep (image is in public domain – magazine periodical, copyright not renewed, via wikipedia)

A popular image of the private eye in books and films is the love-’em-and-leave-’em shamus (be it a man or woman), breaking hearts while cracking a case. Great stuff for Sam Spade, but falling into lust on a whim could get a real-life PI into a heap of trouble. Even if there aren’t legal restrictions, there are often ethical ones.

In this article, we’ll look at at the possible implications of a PI getting involved with a law enforcement officer, a client, and a fellow PI.

Romance with a Law Enforcement Officer

I recently finished a wonderful private eye novel that features a private eye whose girlfriend is a police detective. Although the police-detective-girlfriend was interested in her boyfriend-PI’s case, she knew better than to get overly involved because her participation in the case had the potential to undermine a legal proceeding. Also, her department, knowing about her involvement with the PI, had purposefully not assigned her to the case and had assigned other detectives instead.

Why were the department and girlfriend-detective being so cautious? Because if a romantically involved PI and officer are on different sides of a case, and share — or even appear to share — case information, it can compromise the integrity of both the defense and the prosecution in the trial judge’s eyes. More important, the defendant, after learning that the prosecution and defense investigators were bed partners, could file for a new trial.

Romance with a Client

Lawyers, physicians, accountants and psychologists cannot legally get involved with their clients because those professional-client relationships are interwoven with significant trust. However, in many jurisdictions, there is no legal ban forbidding a PI getting involved with a client.

Even without legal prohibitions, however, there are powerful reasons why a PI should avoid romantic entanglements with clients, the most critical reason being the PI’s loss of professional objectivity. Clients hire PIs to make factual discoveries, not be advocates of their versions of events, and that line can blur when hearts get in the way.

Attorney’s Code of Professional Responsibility

Also, when an attorney retains the services of a PI, the PI becomes an agent of that law firm, and the PI’s conduct is covered by the attorney’s code of professional responsibility. If the PI were to get romantically involved with a client, the attorney could be viewed as authorizing the investigator’s sexual misconduct with a client, and that attorney risks losing his/her license.

Bad for Real-Life, But Juicy for Fiction

But since we’re talking fiction, too, let’s chat a moment about some scandalous plot twists should a private eye get steamy with a client:

  • A DA could claim that the private eye was so involved with his/her client that information favorable to the client was manufactured or tampered with.
  • If the DA claimed evidentiary fraud by the PI and it was supported with any evidence, that could result in the client losing his/her lawyer-client and PI-client communication privilege.
  • As mentioned above, if the PI was working very closely with the lawyer, and at the same time sleeping with that lawyer’s client, the lawyer could be held accountable for his/her employee’s conduct, resulting in a severe penalty for the lawyer. If that PI is in a regulated state, the PI could also be slapped with a license sanction for sexual misconduct.

Romance with a Fellow PI

There could be an ethical dilemma if PIs who are working opposite sides of a case get involved. Similar to a PI being involved with a law enforcement officer, lawyers and judges could challenge the integrity of evidence obtained by either PI. Also, both PIs’ professional reputations would be subject to challenge because they lost objectivity and placed their hearts in front of their careers.

When my husband and I worked full time as PIs for our own firm, we never accepted work on opposites sides of a case. We either worked on the same case, or we each worked our own, independent cases.


 All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content requires specific, written authority. Please do not copy/distribute images that are marked copyrighted or licensed—images in the public domain are yours to use.
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