Law restricts police from moonlighting as private investigators

June 4, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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The interface between the public and private sectors is brought sharply into focus in a state law that takes effect July 1, and the private sector isn’t completely happy with it.

Public Act 146 of 2008 will require that a law enforcement officer first must get permission from his or her department if that officer wants to moonlight as a professional investigator.

Just the fact that this particular part of the 2008 legislation didn’t take effect for almost two years is due to its opposition by collective bargaining organizations representing police and deputies, according to Peter Psarouthakis.

Psarouthakis is a Michigan private investigator who is chairman of Investigative and Security Professionals for Legislative Action, a national political action committee that lobbies Congress.

As the former president of the Michigan Council of Professional Investigators, Psarouthakis was heavily involved in the language of Michigan’s PA 146, which modernized the 1965 state laws regulating private investigators.

“The language we had (proposed) was complete prohibition against active members of law enforcement from holding a licensed professional investigator’s license,” he said, adding that the issue is a “conflict of interest and ethics.”

According to the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth/Bureau of Commercial Services, which licenses professional investigators, the new law applies to anyone who is licensed as a professional investigator, under the employ of a professional investigator, or a member, partner or officer of a professional investigator agency.

Beginning July 1, a law enforcement officer is not allowed to work in any capacity as a professional investigator unless that officer can produce one of the following:

  • Written permission from the chief of police, county sheriff, or other official having executive authority over law enforcement matters in that officer’s jurisdiction.

  • A copy of that jurisdiction's published policies and procedures allowing off-duty employment, but prohibiting the off-duty use of the department’s investigative tools or equipment provided exclusively for law enforcement. The policy must also state that moonlighting as a private investigator does not conflict with employment as a law enforcement officer.

  • A copy of the collective bargaining agreement of the law enforcement officer's jurisdiction.

“A law enforcement officer must obtain one of the documents listed above by July 1, 2010, to continue to be licensed as a professional investigator, under the employ of a professional investigator, or a member, partner or officer of a professional investigator agency,” said DELEG Bureau of Commercial Services Director Al Schefke. “If the law enforcement officer does not obtain the documentation, he or she cannot continue with any activity related to that of a professional investigator.”

Psarouthakis, who owns EWI & Associates, a professional investigations firm in Chelsea, said the ISPLA represents approximately 50,000 professional investigators around the country, plus another 50,000 or more security professionals, mainly employed in private security companies.

Psarouthakis said that across the country, “even in law enforcement circles,” officers moonlighting as private investigators is “seen as a conflict.”

He noted that many private investigators do criminal defense work. Any who were also employed as law enforcement officers would have access to information that investigators in the private sector would not. Private investigators do have access to information databases, “but you have to pay for that access, like attorneys do, using Lexis,” he said.

“They had huge problems in California with this,” said Psarouthakis, referring to the Anthony Pellicano case. Pellicano was a Hollywood private investigator sentenced to federal prison two years ago for operating a wiretapping scheme that spied on celebrities. According to an Associated Press report at the time, Pellicano bribed police officers to check the names of Hollywood personalities in law enforcement databases, to provide information that his clients could use against them in legal and other disputes.

Some states, Psarouthakis said, have a complete prohibition against law officers moonlighting as private detectives.

“We attempted to do that” when the 1965 Michigan law was updated, he said, “and it was fine until we got to the last committee hearing.” He said that at that point, representatives of a “law enforcement union” showed up and blocked the total prohibition clause. Although he cannot remember which union it was, he said it did not represent Michigan State Police troopers.

“Considering all the great changes” the 2008 law made regarding regulation of private investigators in Michigan, he said, “we are very happy with the act now. We’re not going to throw this in the gutter.”

But Psarouthakis repeated that in the opinion of the professional investigators, “This is the one aspect of the bill that is not perfect, and there should be a prohibition. There is a conflict. It’s not good for public policy. It’s not good for the citizens of Michigan.”

The two largest local law enforcement agencies in West Michigan are the Grand Rapids Police Department and the Kent County Sheriff’s Department. The sheriff’s deputies may be granted permission to moonlight as private investigators, “but we try to keep it on a real short leash,” said Sheriff Larry Stelma.

The Grand Rapids Police Department does not allow it, “because of the possibility of a conflict of interest,” according to Lt. Ralph Mason, a spokesperson for the GRPD.

Stelma said he believes three or four county deputies have been given permission to work in their off-duty hours as private investigators, out of more than 600 people employed by the department.

“Every employee — whether they are a corrections officer, a civilian employee or an enforcement officer — every employee has to get approval for any secondary employment,” said Stelma. “Even if some corrections officer wants to do lawn care on his day off, he has to get approval for that. That’s general policy.”

The few who have permission to moonlight as private investigators face strict rules.

“They are not allowed to use any county equipment; they are not allowed to carry their handgun; not allowed to use county radios; they’re not allowed to use county computers; they are not allowed to use the county (database) system to track people or any of that stuff.”

“Most importantly, they are not allowed to use their law enforcement authority — the fact that I have deputized them and they have arrest authority. They are not allowed to use that” in any off-duty employment, he said.

Stelma said he could see where a law enforcement officer could engage in a conflict of interest while working as a private investigator, but “I know that there would be some severe repercussions if they used their access to the state computer system.”

“They’d be terminated,” he said. “It is also a criminal offense to do that. For them to run a license plate, a driver’s license, apart from their job responsibilities as a Kent County deputy sheriff, is a violation of the law,” said Stelma.

“Obviously, I’m not going to absorb any of their liability should they get involved in a use of force, using a weapon or anything like that,” said Stelma.

“We’ve never had a problem with it. At least, I’m not aware of any issues about it. But we try to keep it on a real short leash.”

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