photo by Jason Scott
We investigators sometimes straddle the old and new worlds, mixing classic gumshoe style with crazy-modern processing power.
In his otherwise very well-done piece on the evolution of PI tools over the last twenty years, Jonathan Stelly jumps the gun somewhat by tossing some tried-and-true investigative techniques into the dustbin of history:
“Gone are the days of the investigator having to dumpster dive or drive to local libraries and spend hours scouring the microfilm, hoping to find some shred of beneficial information pertaining to their investigation.”
Anyone who knows me and my investigation and consulting practice is aware that I often rely on some of the most highly evolved technological services, software solutions, and extra-fancy gizmos available on the planet. Being a Mac & iOS Certified Forensic Examiner, a Social Media Intelligence Analyst, and an Apple Certified Support Professional, I spend a lot of my time in front of some form of über-fast, flat, glowing glass rectangle.
Yet there are plenty of times when all that modern wizardry isn’t worth the anodized aluminum holding it together.
Reading Stelly’s piece was striking to me, since that very week I had just finished a case where the information we needed – the information that made all the difference for our client and put all the pieces together – was available only by spending several hours at the local library poring over a stack of 45-year old phone directories, and then finding the needed case file by scrolling through rolls and rolls of microfilm at the county courthouse.
To be sure, those cases are not the norm (and of course when I found the case by microfilm, I updated the clients in New York and Europe instantaneously by text message and by uploading PDFs scanned using my OCR-capable smartphone). But there are plenty of times when turning to old-school investigative techniques can make a big difference.
Here, then, are some examples of low-tech investigative tools we can still benefit from using in a high-tech practice:
While it’s by no means my tool of choice for quick and quality report writing or client communication, I relish using my Olympia SM-9 Manual Portable DeLuxe from time to time:
- Completing forms where the original is needed and no electronic copies are accepted. (Not many agencies require this today, but it does happen on occasion.)
- Some counties use subpoenas that are pre-printed and signed by court staff, ready for us to fill in with the witness’ name, etc. Can’t they just be handwritten, you ask? Yes, but that wouldn’t be truly professional, and that’s just not how we roll.
- There are cases I’ve worked where the attorney-client has required that there be absolutely no digital trail whatsoever. Handwritten notes and typed reports were required. No school like the old school.
- I hope I don’t need to, but one of these days I may just have to pull it out for writing up a report during a major power outage.
Phone Books and Polk Directories:
Depending on how far back you need to go to locate someone’s next of kin, or to find out where someone lived, you may need to get friendly with the reference desk at your local library.
Big metropolitan libraries often stock the directories going back many decades for the whole surrounding area. There were a few different providers, and Polk was a mainstay. Alongside the phone and address listings (which could be somewhat cryptic, so be sure to find the legend at the front), they’d list names, family members, professions, and other juicy nuggets.
Plus, you can get distracted by the hilarious or truly frightening advertisements for blenders, girdles, and fancy new… telephones!
Microfilm and microfiche:
Most county courthouses (and certainly assessor’s offices) store their pre-digital records this way, and knowing your way around a film or fiche machine can be highly useful.
In most cash-strapped counties across the country, these records will never make it to the ones and zeroes we’ve come to rely on in our push to become paperless. If you’ve ever worked mitigation on a case where you need to pull case files for a client’s grandparents, you’ll appreciate that whizzing sound of the reel spinning on its spool, and the smell of a hot lamp on old glass and plastic.
Yes, the squinting at negative-type, the flipping, the zooming, and re-focusing can all be a real pain in the tuchas. But if you persevere, the record you so badly need may be there staring you in the face, waiting to come back to life in that printer across the room…at $2 a page.
On their otherwise great list of the Top 20 Things You Should Have in Your Surveillance Vehicle, the folks over at PI Advice missed the mark by leaving out this essential little item.
You may not believe it, but be ready. Because one of these days, your power, your signal, or your navigational device itself will fail. In fact, that device was built to fail, with parts just strong enough to be relatively reliable but cheap enough not to last “forever.”
What’s a PI to do, out in the back of beyond, when you’ve been looking for a crucial witness all day and your GPS craps out? Well, if you’ve kept up your nav skills and you have local and regional paper maps, you’re good to go.
In some updated courtrooms – and especially in the more deluxe federal courthouses in big cities – jurors now each have their own large flat screen or iPad for viewing exhibits.
When used right, this represents a truly amazing advancement: attorneys or their investigators can –from the counsel table– switch between different exhibits, play strategically selected audio and video clips for the jury, and highlight in real time the exact passage on which a witness is being cross-examined.
Yet as big an impact as all that can have, there’s something to be said for the humble flip chart, and for the well-organized tabbed binder that can be held and flipped through page by page back in the deliberation room.
Often, if you are using an expert witness, their presentation can be so much more dynamic and memorable when the diagram is being created then and there on a pad on an easel. This courtroom tactic is especially useful for the visual learners amongst your jurors.
Combined with transparencies, these charts can be even more compelling. Your expert can flip back and forth without any special technology, giving jurors a crucial before-and-after sequence.
So as you continue to build your practice, refining your ever-more-efficient processes for a high-tech office and doing always-connected fieldwork, remember these and other old-school tools. They’ll save your butt out there someday, and maybe just help you win your case.
About the Author:
Eli Rosenblatt is an investigator, CFE, and forensics expert in Portland, Oregon. He owns Eli Rosenblatt Investigations and Core Service, LLC and has, quite possibly, the best-designed business card in all the world.