The Case of the Missing License

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In 1977, a court case out of Colorado Springs brought the whole system down. El Paso County had challenged a local security company's right to conduct investigations without a license. The Colorado Supreme Court declared the licensing law too vague because it didn't adequately define a "detective business." Pezolt and like-minded P.I.s responded by forming the PPIAC, in an effort to introduce a tougher licensing procedure, one that would add some educational requirements.

"We made a mistake," Pezolt says now. "We decided this was our opportunity to correct a lot of things in the law. What we should have done was just fix the language and define an investigator."

A bill supported by the PPIAC made it through the Colorado House before dying on the Senate floor. Subsequent efforts in the 1980s and 1990s didn't get nearly that far. "The legislature always asks, 'Why do you want to be licensed? Show us where the public's been hurt,'" Pezolt says.

State lawmakers weren't the only ones asking that question. The PPIAC currently has 125 members, but it doesn't speak for all segments of the industry. Every time a licensing bill would surface, a vocal pack of P.I.s would show up to oppose it -- not just part-timers fretting over covering the cost of a license, but ex-cops who'd gone private. Given all their law-enforcement training, they didn't see why they should have to meet continuing-education requirements or dance to any bureaucrat's tune. Their vehemence astounded the licensing proponents -- "Just because you wore a police badge doesn't mean that you're a detective or know how to do complex investigations," Pezolt notes -- and exposed a deep divide in the business.

The PPIAC last made a serious run at the legislature four years ago. This time the group had the backing of the state sheriffs' association, chiefs of police and the criminal-defense bar, all of whom agreed that licensing P.I.s was a good idea. But they were quickly torpedoed at public hearings by a posse of retired FBI agents. Picture it: square-jawed, silver-haired ex-feds in dark suits, snoops who've been picking up government checks for years, complaining that the government wants to stick its nose in their business. Bitching about the cost. Griping that they won't have enough scratch left to feed their thoroughbreds and polish their wingtips.

"These are guys whose retirement is more than most private eyes make in an entire year," says Rick Johnson, the current PPIAC president. "There were no fewer than twenty of them, all dressed up in their coats and ties. It was a joke."

The PPIAC has another draft of a licensing bill that it's circulating now in hopes that the legislature will consider it next year. But the group expects the usual dissenters to be out in force. Armistead recalls making a presentation to a bunch of retired cops in Jefferson County; some of them seemed ready to throw their walkers at him. "I almost got lynched," he says.

But Armistead doesn't think ex-cops necessarily make the best P.I.s, anyway, because a lot of them lack people skills. "They're used to going up to people with a badge," he says, "and demanding information."

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.... He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. -- Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder"

Daril Cinquanta has a suggestion for the P.I.s who'd like to be licensed by the state: "If they want a badge, they can go order one."

Formerly one of the "Supercops," an elite Denver police undercover unit that collapsed in the late 1980s amid allegations of misconduct, tainted testimony and staged crimes, for the past sixteen years Cinquanta has made a living as a private investigator. Not having a badge or a license suits him just fine; in fact, he says, the entire P.I. business in Colorado is "running like a Swiss watch."

"There's no upside to licensing," he insists. "It puts you on the same level as attorneys. Attorneys get grieved routinely -- and wrongly. They can penalize you and put you out of business. Who's going to be on the board that oversees us -- other investigators? Why would we want to open that door? Is this competition elimination?"

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast