Use of Private Investigators in a Divorce or Family Law Case

Copyright © 2014 Shaw Law Firm, LLC

Atlanta Divorce Attorney

Winning a divorce or child custody case is largely about discovering and obtaining facts in a form that is compelling to the court and ADMISSIBLE in court. It is not enough to state innuendo, or "everyone knows this" or otherwise use conjecture to establish a fact. Facts are established by witnesses and documents. Private Investigators are great at becoming key witnesses in a case to prove facts that are otherwise difficult to prove.

At the Shaw Law Firm, we have successfully used private investigators as part of a strategy to win innumerable cases that otherwise may have been up in the air as to their results or would have been extremely challenging to win. The primary problem in such cases is not that we don't know what is going on, but that we don't have any credible witnesses or documents to prove our case. Private investigators can be invaluable at not just tracking down adultery, but also in child custody and visitation cases, contempt cases, on the issue of finding hidden property, and in child support cases when it becomes necessary to track someone who is lying about their employment and income.

Hiring a Private Investigator

It is important to not run out and just hire a private investigator. First you need to retain a very good private investigator. And then the private investigator needs to work with your attorney and yourself to conduct the investigation. The problem is that the client and the private investigator, prior to consulting an attorney, tend to be undisciplined and unfocused, and obtain evidence that is either not relevant or that is not admissible in court. Care must be taken to (1) not tip off the other party, and (2) to plan and set up the case so that relevant and legal information is obtained from the investigation. When you use a private investigator, obtaining "dirt" on the other party is not what you are after. What you are after is evidence that is directly relevant to the issue at stake. I have been frustrated in many cases when a new client brings me evidence from a PI that he obtained before consulting an attorney, only to find that (1) his or her spouse was tipped off that they are under surveillance, (2) the evidence obtained, although technically "dirt" on that party, was not that relevant to the actual issues in the case, and (3) what was obtained is likely to not be admissible in court. If you are considering hiring a private investigator to obtain useful and relevant evidence to further your case, please consult an attorney before instigating the investigation.

Examples of the Successful Use of a Private Investigator

There are many examples of cases in which the use of a private investigator made a huge difference in the outcome of a case. Some of the stories are heart breaking, others humorous, but the hard work of private investigators, in conjunction with the client's attorney, has in many cases produced game changing results. Below are but a few examples.

Example #1: Probably the most egregious case involved a case where I was representing a hard working father. The case was going to be very challenging because his wife was a stay-at-home mother and the family was very private. We knew what the wife was doing, how horrible of a mother she was, but there was no one who would come forward. In fact, just the opposite, her family and friends were standing up for her. It was heart breaking, and we were working creatively to develop evidence for the case to make sure this woman would not get custody of this 4 year old girl.

We recommended that our client hire a talented private investigator that we had worked with for years. Through her working with our client, it had become known that the wife had planned a rendezvous with her boyfriend on Thanksgiving Day. Through sources it also became known that she was going to take her 4 year old daughter with her. Our client was scared to death. How could he let his daughter go with her on Thanksgiving Day? We had to have a heart-to-heart, explain to him that if we did not win custody his daughter would be subject to this sort of thing possibly for years. He had to trust the private investigator, and he had to allow his wife to "hang herself," so to speak. Thanksgiving Day came, our private investigator was on the top of her game. She tracked the wife down to the motel she had arranged. When she got there, the wife and boyfriend were passed out on the bed, beer and liquor bottles were littered around the bed. The little girl was on a chair, a few feet from the bed. The police were called by the private investigator. With the testimony of the private investigator, the new found credibility of our client's testimony, and because of this egregious event that we were able to prove, we were able to ensure that the mother did not see her daughter in an unsupervised capacity thereafter. Our client won custody, and a challenging and very difficult case turned into a simple one at trial.

Example #2: We know the wife in this case was an alcoholic. But she denied it, and her friends and family denied it. We put the best private investigator we know on the job. The private investigator followed the wife to and fro, kept tabs on her, and at one point actually went into the bar/restaurant she went into and had an actual conversation with her at the bar. Thereafter the wife, who had multiple drinks in the bar/restaurant, left the facility drunk. Our private investigator followed her, knew that she was drunk, and called the police who arrested her for DUI. Found within the car was a "water bottle" filled with vodka. The same water bottle the wife was seen with on innumerable occasions that the PI had caught her with on tape. Due to this evidence, she could not claim that her getting drunk was just an isolated incident. The evidence was invaluable.

Example #3: The client was a Marine Sergeant, and the wife in this case was a stay-at-home mom. We had to allow the parties' child to stay with his mom for half of the Christmas break. Our client, a tough and hardened U.S. Marine, was heartbroken, he literally broke into tears. He could not bear to let his son go. But we had no choice, the judge was going to divide the holiday. But before letting his son go, we made the wife promise in a court order that she would not have her boyfriend (a man of not the greatest character) around the children at all. I told my client to "let her hang herself." So we sent the children to her for her half of Christmas break as we were required. However, unbeknownst to her, we also sent a private investigator.

Trial came around, and our client's wife was demanding that she have sole custody of their son. And she had no shame. She was perhaps one of the biggest liars I had come across. The wife's side went first at trial. She testified to some big whoppers. On cross-examination I set her up with some questions I knew she would answer falsely and I knew we would blow away the next day. The key was to make sure the judge unequivocally heard her responses. The next day we had video demonstrating, without a doubt, her boyfriend staying overnight with her and her with her kids, and two follow-up witnesses that the PI had found to testify to some of the other whoppers that wife had told. In the end she paid my client $6,000 in attorney's fees for her contemptuous behavior from her violation of the Christmas court order (which included her paying for the PI as well) and my client, the happiest U.S. Marine you had ever seen, left the court room with sole custody of his little boy!

I can probably go on for ten more pages of war stories, but private investigators have been invaluable in many, many cases. The above cases are examples of the "let them hang themselves" approach. They end up hanging themselves all the time. But private investigators have uses in multiple aspects, from these more dramatic custody cases, from tracking down witnesses, to serving subpoenas, to demonstrating that a party who claims to be injured or disabled is really faking the injury or disability, to proving that someone who claims to be unemployed is really employed, and a whole host of other issues. Private investigators do not always come back with the goods, but when they do it is quite often spectacular what they come back with.

Is Hiring a Private Investigator the Right Choice for Me?

At Shaw Law Firm, we have a long history and a great deal of experience working with some of the best private investigators around. Private investigators can be as invaluable as witnesses, where otherwise no witnesses exist, and in discovering and providing leads, such as discovering criminal records and in developing and finding witnesses. They are not always successful in what they do, and private investigators need guidance from lawyers as to how to collect lawful and admissible evidence that will be material to a case. The cost of a private investigator varies, but depending on the job, plan on spending between $500 and $2,500, sometimes more, particularly if a lot of travel is involved. When it works, it is worth every penny that you spend. The use of a private investigator is never a sure thing, and is something that you really need to discuss with your attorney.

If you think hiring a private investigator will be beneficial to your case, please don't hesitate to contact Atlanta divorce lawyer Scott Shaw today!