PLF asks federal court to halt unconstitutional licensing laws for private investigators

February 20, 2015 | By TIMOTHY SANDEFUR

This afternoon, we asked the federal court in Las Vegas to issue a preliminary injunction barring the state from enforcing a law that makes it a crime to “furnish…information” about the “habits” or “conduct” or “acts” of “any person” without first getting a government-issued “private investigator” license. That’s right—the law defines “private investigator” so broadly that would include biographers, professors, journalists, genealogists, and many more. Disregarding the First Amendment, which protects every person’s right to freedom of expression, Nevada law makes it a crime to “furnish” this kind of information without getting the government’s permission first. This is no exaggeration: in 2013, the state’s Private Investigator Licensing Board prosecuted a man for violating the law because he had testified in a trial as an expert witness.

The law defines “private investigator” to include anyone who “furnish[es]…information” about

  • the “identity, habits, conduct, business, occupation, honesty, integrity, credibility, knowledge, trustworthiness, efficiency, loyalty, activity, movement, whereabouts, affiliations, associations, transactions, acts, reputation or character of any person
  • “[t]he location, disposition or recovery of lost or stolen property”;
  • “[t]he cause or responsibility for fires, libels, losses, accidents or damage or injury to persons or to property”; or
  • “[a] crime or tort that has been committed, attempted, threatened or suspected.”

And to get a license, the law requires you to undergo a background check, and to have your “principal place of business” inside the Silver State. The state even discriminates against non-Nevadans by charging them a lower licensing fee than it charges people from other states. The law is plainly designed to prevent investigators from other states from competing against Nevadans.

That’s a problem for our client, Troy Castillo. After 29 years with the Palm Springs, California, Police Department, Troy decided to become a private investigator. Naturally, working in Palm Springs, he’s often asked to take on work in Nevada. In fact, he already has a Nevada investigator license. But under this new “principal place of business” restriction, he’s not allowed to operate unless he opens an office in Nevada, which is an expensive undertaking for a small business owner.

That violates both the First Amendment and the Constitution’s prohibition on discrimination against people in other states. The First Amendment bars the government from imposing “prior restraints”—that is, requirements that a person get a license before speaking or publishing. And the Commerce Clause and the Privileges and Immunities Clause forbid the states from giving special favors to their own citizens that are not accorded to others.

State lawyers argue that the law is constitutional because people should be “thoroughly vetted” by the government before they “furnish information.” But the entire history of the First Amendment says the opposite: the government is not in the business of “vetting” people who want to speak. As the Supreme Court has said, “It is offensive—not only to the values protected by the First Amendment but to the very notion of a free society—that…a citizen must inform the government of her desire to speak…and then obtain a permit to do so.”

We filed a lawsuit on Troy’s behalf a few months ago, and today we’ve filed an amended complaint and a motion for an injunction asking the court to halt enforcement of this discriminatory violation of the freedom of speech. No hearing date has been set, yet, and we will post updates when available. You can learn more about the case by reading our backgrounder or watching our video.