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'True Detective' Legal Truths: Can Anyone Investigate Crime?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

"True Detective" gives viewers a taste of investigating crimes, both in and out of the police force. Rust and Marty go from investigating as on-duty police officers to rouge cops, private investigators, and even average citizens.

We don't suggest that people model their lives after "True Detective," but the show poses an interesting question: Can anyone investigate crime?

FindLaw | True Detective: Legal Truths


Off-Duty Cops

"True Detective's" main duo do more than their fair share of "off the books" police work, but what can off-duty cops actually do?

Even when off-duty, police officers are generally allowed to detain and potentially arrest someone if they have probable cause that the suspect has committed a crime. This does not mean off-duty officers have the ability to use the color of their authority to settle personal beefs or draw a gun during a snowball fight.

And although these cops may be "off the clock," if they act "under color of law" (i.e., with the apparent authority of the law), then the government can be held liable for their actions. Many police officers will be instructed to avoid making arrests while off-duty, unless the situation is life threatening.

Private Investigators

In "True Detective," Marty becomes a private investigator after his stint on the force, giving him some authority to investigate the "Yellow King" case.

But even licensed PIs are liable to be charged with crimes if they:

  • Search a house without permission. This is trespassing and PIs cannot legally search a house based on probable cause.
  • Detain or arrest someone. PIs have no authority to make arrests any more than average citizens (see below). Holding someone against his or her will could be considered false imprisonment or even kidnapping.
  • Tapping phones. Police need a court order to wiretap a suspect, and PIs can be charged with a federal crime for doing so.

Private Citizens

Like PIs, and (later in the "True Detective" timeline) Rust, private citizens do not have much in the way of authority when it comes to investigating crimes. However, normal citizens can perform a citizen's arrest in two scenarios:

  • A felony has been committed and you have reasonable belief that the suspect is the perpetrator; or
  • A crime involving a breach of the peace occurs in your presence and is likely to continue.

Ultimately, law enforcement has the best legal authority and protection when it comes to investigating crime, so don't get too inspired by "True Detective."

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