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Advice for Paralegal’s on Using Private Investigators to Locate Missing People

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The decision to use investigators to locate missing persons depends on a few important factors: the cost considerations, the overall strength and importance of the case, and time deadlines. If the case is relatively minor in terms of dollar values, or the participation of a missing witness is less consequential to the outcome, it probably makes better sense to save the money an investigator would require to locate the person. It's pointless to spend a large sum to find someone who might not contribute much to the case. If you have other witnesses or more viable options at your disposal, there's no need to throw good money after bad.

However, if time pressures are suddenly looming, it makes excel lent sense to get investigators busy on the case. They can often get good results in as little as one day or even one hour. Using their resources, some of which are more nefarious than others, they can often track down someone in such a short period of time that it saves the case and more than justifies their fees.

Always remember that no matter how much you like working with your investigators or how well you get along with them on a professional level, it's still a business for them and for you. They'll know from the tone of your voice or the urgency of your notes when a skip trace or locate is a "rush" and thereby commands higher fees for faster work. Be prepared to pay more for someone you need to find by yesterday.

Investigator Joe Coyle, from Joe Coyle and Associates in San Diego, California, offers more advice for paralegals who need to find missing people: "My clients usually contact me after the local marshal's office or an attorney service has failed to locate the party who needs to be found or served. Sometimes the address listed as 'bad' by these services is actually good, so I can save your firm some time and money. More often, however, the person has indeed moved. Many of these people fail to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles or the U.S. Postal Service of their new address so the search becomes much more difficult."

Coyle has seen a number of cases in which the paralegals could have solved the problems themselves with a bit more work. "The biggest mistake I see paralegals make is their failure to do a little research on their own before calling me. Sometimes simply looking in the phone book or calling Directory Assistance will help them locate the person. By doing a few simple checks on their own, they can save their firm and the client hundreds of dollars in investigator fees."

Coyle cautions, "When the person has dropped out of sight or doesn't wish to be found, you shouldn't hesitate to call a professional investigator. Always remember that the clock is ticking. The longer you wait before you give the case to someone like me, the colder the leads may become. This just makes it harder and more expensive to find the person."

If you do decide to hire investigators to locate missing people, make sure you give them all of the information you have.

"The next biggest mistake," says Coyle, "is that attorneys and paralegals fail to give me enough usable information about the person.

Sometimes a paralegal will send me a package of legal papers to serve or give me an assignment to locate and interview a lost witness. I may get the name and maybe an address, but nothing else. It's hard to do much with such scant information. These kinds of locates can become very expensive, if they are possible at all.

"When I’m talking with attorneys or paralegals about a case, I emphasize the importance of providing as much information as they have about the person we're looking for. I ask them to let me read the entire file, and I find out if they have any other information that's not in the file. Dates of birth, Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, vehicle information, names of relatives and employers, and even the actual circumstances of the case can really help me narrow my search."

Investigators can never have too much information to go on. "Don't try to put me on a case with nothing more than a telephone call," he warns. "For accountability purposes, it's extremely important to have a letter or some document that clearly spells out what I'm being retained to do or what service I'm being asked to provide." In light of recent tragedies involving the unauthorized use of names and addresses of television and movie actors, the laws concerning the release of personal information have really become quite strict. "

In California," says Coyle, "private investigators may get access to Department of Motor Vehicles records for the purposes of getting residence address information in order to serve legal papers. Any investigator who wants to use this system ethically must post a large bond, pay various fees, and maintain a 'log' with a case number or a copy of the file to prove that the records inquiry was made for the stated, legal purpose. A copy of the summons alone isn't good enough. I usually ask for a letter from the attorney specifically as signing me to locate and serve 'the attached summons and complaint to the below named defendant.'

I know it's extra work for my clients, but it protects all of us from malpractice claims later on." While he realizes how important and critical some cases can be for an entire law office, Coyle stands firm on his professional ethics. He won't sacrifice his career just to find a missing person.

"I won't do anything illegal or unethical. I don't know how many times I've heard someone say, 'You can't be a good investigator without bending the rules a little.' There's a big difference between bending rules and breaking laws. Some investigators, either through ignorance of the law or overzealousness, choose to break the law now and then just to solve a case, gain access to information, and keep their attorney clients happy. I've heard this behavior can range from accessing certain databases under false pretenses all the way to installing illegal wiretaps.

"When attorneys, paralegals, and investigators choose to break the law or abuse the system and get caught, the whole legal profession suffers a setback. Everyone else's job gets tougher as a result." Using an investigator is a choice you must make after you weigh the factors surrounding the case. Coyle says it's always better to be too prepared for a possible court trial than not prepared at all. You can never know too much about the case.

"Don't ever be afraid to ask your investigator for help," he says, "or for some suggestions as to the best way to proceed on a case. An experienced investigator can be a great resource. Many investigators working today are armed with college degrees and lots of street savvy instead of a .38-caliber and some shoe leather. Don't 'wing it' alone. Use the resources of a good investigator when necessary."

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