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The Case of the Missing License

Congress is putting on the squeeze, but Colorado's private investigators still can't agree how -- or if -- they should be regulated.

Licensing, in other words, doesn't automatically purge a profession of the ethically challenged. "The idea that licensing is going to reduce scams is ludicrous," says Ryan Ross, a former Westwordwriter who's been working as an investigator for the past three years. "Look at how lawyers are regulated, and how many scam artists are in the bar. If you're going to be a crook, it doesn't matter how much training you get."

The PPIAC's Johnson says that licensing would at least give scam victims a way to track down and seek redress from the crooks; it would also provide background checks that should discourage career felons from getting into the business. When he worked as an investigator for the Denver district attorney, Johnson once helped put away a bail bondsman on eighty counts of forgery; a few years later, the same man had an ad in the Denver Yellow Pages advertising his services as a P.I.

As president of the association, he adds, "I receive a lot of complaints at my office about other private investigators. Money paid, no report issued, bad advice -- that kind of thing. There are a lot of private eyes out here who are pretty clueless, and they have no idea of the harm they can do to their clients.

"I would bet that most attorneys in this state don't realize that private investigators aren't licensed. They don't know that a lot of them don't carry liability insurance. Some investigators don't want to pay for insurance or a license. But if you can't afford a licensing fee, maybe you should find another line of work."

Cinquanta contends that licensing would encourage clients to make frivolous complaints and possibly compromise the confidential nature of his work. "It will force you to do business much differently to protect your ass," he says. "It's going to cost taxpayers or the P.I.s a lot of money to do business."

The former supercop has eleven employees, all former police officers. And, although his agency has never been sued, he's always carried insurance. "I have a million dollars' liability," he says. "I'd be scared to death not to have it."


"You admit you were there? You admit that Dalling was dead."

"I was there. He was dead."

"You didn't report it to us. We had to wait until the blood soaked through the floor and made a spot on the ceiling of the apartment underneath and somebody finally got around to noticing it. That wasn't smart of you, Archer, it wasn't cooperative, it wasn't even legal. It's the kind of thing that makes for license trouble." He leaned forward across the desk, his eyes jumping like blue Bunsen flames, and tossed me a change-of-pace: "Of course license trouble is the least of your worries."

-- Ross Macdonald, The Way Some People Die

The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies is currently conducting what's known as a "sunrise review" of the PPIAC's licensing proposal to determine whether to recommend legislation. The primary consideration is whether allowing investigators to operate unlicensed endangers the public, says Bruce Harrelson, director of DORA's office of policy research and regulatory reform. Harrelson expects to make a report to the General Assembly this fall.

Public safety may be DORA's chief concern, but the advocates of licensing have other agendas, too. "I operated for twenty years without a license," Pezolt says. "Now, there's probably more need for it. But we're not protecting the public. The biggest reason we wanted it is to control the competition. You want to make sure the guys you're working with have gone through the same vetting process you have, that they're not convicted felons."

There are plenty of practical reasons some P.I.s want to be licensed. Insurance would probably be cheaper for licensed P.I.s who are required to have thousands of hours of investigative experience and to keep current on changes in technology and law. Discouraging amateurs, who don't have the required experience or the moxie to get it through an apprenticeship with a licensed P.I., would be another bonus. And there's the issue of reciprocity -- numerous law-enforcement, corrections and other agencies in other states won't deal with P.I.s who aren't licensed. Colorado investigators often obtain a license in Kansas, New Mexico or Arizona if they expect to be operating out of state.

"I once had a sheriff in Nebraska ask for a copy of my P.I. license," Pezolt recalls. "When I told him I didn't have one, he said, 'I wouldn't let the sun set on you in this town tonight.'"

The most pressing issue, though, is access to credit reports and consumer databases compiled by companies such as ChoicePoint -- all those Social Security numbers, dates of birth, last known addresses and other goodies that are the essential tools of the trade for a gumshoe in the computer age. Pending federal legislation could restrict data companies from peddling such information to anyone except for a narrow range of banks and finance companies, law-enforcement agents, attorneys and other credentialed professionals. Without licenses, a lot of Colorado P.I.s could be shut out of the data harvest entirely.

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