Sometimes, a client goes a little bit crazy, temporarily or otherwise. Is it ethical to work the case?
“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.” –Isaac Newton
“No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.” –Aristotle
Sgt. Joe Friday never uttered his most famous quote from the TV series Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am.” But what he did say is essentially the same: “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”
Any investigator who’s ever answered his office phone knows this: Fact-finding is only one aspect of his work. An investigator finds himself playing many unofficial roles that venture well beyond seeking and compiling information. He listens, soothes the scorned, talks the client out of terrible ideas, and (occasionally) bails him out of lockup when he fails to listen.
Sometimes, an investigator’s most important role is to tell a prospective client that she shouldn’t hire him at all.
The best investigators have a trained nose for nutters; how they deal with that intelligence is, in terms of ethics, where the rubber meets the road. As one astute law blogger pointed out, “Every lawyer knows that the dream client is eccentric.” And by “eccentric,” he means “crazy and rich.”
The temptation to subsidize more straightforward (but less lucrative) work with big checks from “eccentric” clients can be overwhelming. It’s a free country, right? If she wants to pay you $150/hr to check the aquarium, pool, and hot tub for “deep-sea listening devices” every day for a month, who are you to argue?
Here’s the rub: There’s an ethical line somewhere, one that separates the realm of honest work for clients in tough spots from the Land of Exploitation of the Criminally Insane. Where, exactly, is that invisible frontier? Would you accept checks from the aforementioned client if she lived in a trailer? Or is crazy crazy, no matter the size of the investment portfolio?
I once accepted payment from a client who was certain that a former paramour had set up surveillance on her house…surveillance that emanated from space. No amount of reason could convince her that this was so unlikely as to be entirely unfeasible, and she insisted I do, at the very least, a bug sweep.
I eventually consented, charged her a minimal fee, and felt extremely uneasy about the transaction. In the end, I agreed to the job because I felt that she was buying peace of mind, even if it was peace of mind of the tin-foil helmet variety.
I’m still not convinced that it was the right thing to do. And ever since, I’ve tried to establish at least a working set of guidelines about what to do when a client insists on hiring me to do something that would serve only to drive him deeper into Crazyland.
The trouble is, defining crazy isn’t so easy. There’s full-bore, talking-to-the-mop crazy, there’s paranoid crazy, and then there’s temporary insanity—the kind most of us suffer every now and again. In this line of work, there’s plenty of the latter variety, especially when it comes to matters of the heart.
In the Phaedrus, Plato speaks of love as a form of madness, one “fraught with the highest bliss.” Any family attorney can tell you what can happen when that blissful madness morphs into suspicion, jealousy, and lust for revenge.
Are there times when it’s clearly unethical to indulge and exploit that temporary insanity? Like, say, when the already-divorced client wants continued surveillance on his ex, “just to know the truth”? What about when he wants that surveillance done at 3am, and he asks you to call him right away if you see a certain car in the driveway…and then turns up, wearing no pants, wielding a machete?
Private investigators certainly aren’t mental health professionals. But there are times when talking a client off the proverbial cliff, though it may not be the job you were asked to do, is the job that most needs doing. In the end, we’re all just a little bit mad at times; sometimes what’s called for isn’t surveillance, but a little compassion, and a long, frank conversation.
With that, here’s a quick mental checklist I run through when a new or old client of mine starts showing signs of significant plot loss. If any of these categories apply, the red flags fly, and I strongly consider a polite, “I’m sorry, but no,” spoken in a very calm, soothing voice.
1. The Vengeful: The divorce is over, custody agreement is set, but he/she wants more “work” done—just to “know the truth” or to “get some dirt.”
2. The Paranoid: A client is sure someone is monitoring him/her in ways that are impossible or highly unlikely. (A mention of satellites=clanging alarms)
3. The Smarmy: A client insists repeatedly, “I’m not a stalker,” but he doth protest too much.
Thomas H. Humphreys is a Nashville private investigator and founder of [FIND] Investigations.
Add your $.02:
Have you ever refused to work for a client who seemed irrational?
What are your red flags of crazy, the signs that make you tell clients “No’ and “H**L no?”
Have you ever referred a client to a psychotherapist?