Investigative Tool: Automatic License Plate Readers

Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR) are cameras that are specially designed to record license plates and concurrently gather the time, date, and location information. In most cases, that information is stored, and often times transmitted elsewhere for later retrieval.

The technology was actually developed in the UK by a law enforcement research center in the late 1970s. It wasn’t until 1981 where it was used for the first time in a criminal case. However ALPR didn’t really become practical until computer and networking advances had been made.

Today, use of ALPR cameras sees far more than law enforcement usage. Repo companies, parking garages, malls, and even HOAs make use of ALPR systems.

For legal investigations this data is a potential treasure trove. ALPR can help give insight into new residences information for defendants or witnesses. Photo sightings can provide corroborating evidence for alibis, or discredit them. At my company we’ve seen them be useful in cases ranging from domestics to corporate fraud to skip traces.

In recent history in the US the majority of ALPR data collection has been through one or two companies. This made it easy to query and find all available data, and the aggregating companies stored data in perpetuity. This resulted in over decade of data being avaialable about a license plate or a given location. That landscape is changing largely due to two factors. The first is camera availability. Dedicated ALPR cameras used to run thousands of dollars – but today standalone ALPR cameras can be purchased for less than $1,000. This proliferation of cameras has led to an increase in companies offering ALPR serves.

The other issues that’s dramatically changing the landscape is an increased awareness of privacy issues arising from ALPR use, and particularly from sharing all of the collected data with a single source.

So today, instead of a parking garage or HOA uploading all of their collected ALPR data to one of the few aggregators, they tend to retain this data locally for their own purposes.

So what does this mean for ALPR use in investigations? It changes how you may think of ALPR. The primary aggregators remain, and you should absolutely start with them. They still receive massive amounts of data, particularly from the repo industry and they have a lot of historical data. In fact the largest aggregator in the US has over 10 billion license plate captures. But you need to pay attention. Does the city have ALPR cameras on the streets? What about parking garages? You need to target locations and routes to check for the presence of traditional and ALPR cameras. Fortunately, ALPR cameras are relatively easy to spot once you know what you are looking for.

If you think that ALPR might be of use in your litigation matters, please don’t hesitate to call us to discuss the matter. We consider ALPR an important investigative tool.

How to Verify a South Carolina Private Investigator’s License

How to tell if someone is really a private investigator in South Carolina

There’s no good guide to validating whether a private investigator is licensed or not. Folks who are licensed understand this pretty quickly. However, consumers do not have an easy way to verify whether someone they may be considering hiring is licensed or not. South Carolina, doesn’t expose it’s license and registration database. A number of other states, like Texas and North Carolina provide searchable databases. 

License vs. Registration

So it’s important to understand that there are two types of private investigators in South Carolina. There are licensed private investigators and registered private investigators. 

Licensed private investigators have a combination of education and documented investigatory experience that equals 6000 hours, combined with a significant level of vetting by SLED, and are bonded. Licensed private investigators or their companies are the only entities allowed to solicit and contract for private investigation business. 

Registered private investigators are employees of licensed private investigators. They are tied to working only for the private investigation company that they are employed by. They receive a registered private investigator identification card from SLED, and the name of the employing company will appear. Registered private investigators have no experience requirements and go through a less rigorous background investigation on the theory that they are going to be trained and supervised by a licensed investigator, and that the licensed investigator. 

Identification Cards

This is what the identification card looks like: 


South Carolina Private Investigator Identification Card

South Carolina Private Investigator Identification Card

There is no reason for a private investigator not to have their registration card on their person. State law requires them to have the card in their possession before engaging in any activity regarding an investigation, and this includes signing a client up. 

There are a couple of important things that you should be looking at on the identification card. First the name and the photo should match the individual you are speaking with. Second, the company name listed below the investigator’s name should match the company or individual you think you are doing business with. If an investigator asks you to issue a check or pay him or her as an individual, that should be a red flag. Unfortunately there are some unscrupulous employees who will try and use their registration card to take on business themselves. 

A couple of important things for you to consider on the card: 

Expiration Date: Registrations and licenses are only issued for a year a time. If someone presents an expired registration card, that should absolutely be a red flag. The person may no longer work for the employing agency. 

Registration Number: The number in red above the expiration date is the registration number. For a registered private investigator, this will begin with the prefix “RD” and then will followed with numbers. A licensed private investigator will have the prefix “D” followed by zeros, and then followed by the 4 digit license number of the agency. This also will tell you whether you’re dealing with the company’s principal or an employee. 

The License

Of course, what we’ve talked about thus far are just the identification/registration cards. The actual license is a wall certificate. If you’re visiting an office in person this should be hanging on the wall somewhere that you can see it. I pulled this great scanned example off of a colleague’s website in Columbia. 

South Carolina Private Investigator Wall License

South Carolina Private Investigator Wall License

The license is printed on a parchment-colored paper. It will have a gold and black border, and the seal of the State of South Carolina will also be gold. The word license will appear in red letters. The expiration date is important – because licenses are only valid for one year. It should not be expired. In the bottom right hand corner, the license number will be present (in this case 3174). The red numbers in the lower left hand corner are a control number. Because some agencies have multiple offices around the state, there may be multiple copies of the license for a single licensee. 

Verify with SLED

Of course, if you have any questions, the easiest way to check if a person is registered or licensed is to call SLED. You can reach the Regulatory Services division of SLED at (803) 896-7015.  


The right to remain ‘lost’

Private investigators are regularly besieged by requests to find people who lost or dropped contact with our potential clients over the years. This may be a birth parent, or long-lost sibling, college roommate,  former best friend, etc.

Many of our potential clients are surprised by our policy and belief that people have a right to remain lost. Or perhaps better stated, individuals shouldn’t be forced to communicate with people or to have their personal information shared without their consent.

When we take on a client looking for a ‘missing’ loved one, we always start with the stipulation: We won’t provide the target of the investigation’s contact information.  Instead of that we provide the client’s contact information; effectively giving control of the situation to the person that is ‘lost’. If they want to make contact, there’s no problem. If they don’t, they can just move on with the situation.

We do all of this for a few reasons. First, it can be a bit jarring to get a phone call and learn that a private investigator has been hired to find you. A lot of those initial contacts are skeptical or defensive. Many of these folks describe a feeling of vulnerability or helplessness – particularly if they were trying to remain hidden.

Second, in the back of our mind, there’s always a worry that our client may have ulterior motives for wanting to contact folks. I think every private investigator thinks about Rebecca Schaeffer, who, for $250 a private investigator provided her address to the person who would ultimately murder her. Now we know that most of our clients have no ill will, but we also see a fair number of sketchy requests including those that are clearly abusive or stalking in nature.

We also have to make sure that we are complying with the laws and regulations that exist around the information that we have access to. Laws like the Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) and Graham-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) regulate what we are allowed to access and for what reasons. Falling afoul of this could result in legal penalties, loss of database access, and loss of license.


The one, true, database

Three times in the past week, I’ve been asked about database access someone could use that would ‘be like what the FBI and CIA see’ – where you see everything about a person. I blame Hollywood for this misconception; especially shows like Criminal Minds, where someone at a computer has seemingly unfettered and immediate access to everything – from floral delivery records, farmers market vendor history, to school discipline history. That simply doesn’t exist.


Does all of that data exist? Certainly, though many times it’s on paper with no computer alternative; and even those that are computerized are not all available from a single point. The reality is that there are thousands upon thousands of databases, and while you may have an aggregator collect some, they are unlikely to collect them all.

Recently, one of my client’s came to me with the results of an online ‘Nationwide Criminal Background Check’. It primarily contained speeding tickets out of South Carolina; despite the subject of the check living the majority of her adult life in another state. After some research, it turned out that the ‘Nationwide Background Check’ only covered 6 of the 159 counties in Georgia. Querying the records at the Clerk of Courts in the counties where the woman resided revealed a half-dozen convictions, with evidence of substance abuse and violence. Of course, none of those records were available online. I frequently refer folks to the Public Records Retriever Network; let those folks be your boots on the ground. They are experienced, understand where the records are and how to locate them.

How a real background investigation works

We’ve gotten used to, as a society, of accepting a criminal records history as being the background of someone. And while a criminal history is an important part of someone’s background; it’s far from everything.

Is there a history of civil lawsuits? What do those suits allege? Is that problematic behavior? What do his coworkers and neighbors have to say about his behavior and ethics? How is his employment record? Each of those may be an important part of the person’s background. Or, they might be unimportant to you.

Nalley Private Investigations awarded ‘Top Pro 2017’ status by

We’re pleased to announce that Nalley Private Investigations, has been awarded ‘Top Pro 2017’ status by This recognition is given to the top 4% of professionals in all categories on Thumbtack, and is based on both getting hired and positive reviews from verified customers over a one year period.


We’re happy to be recognized for providing value to our customers, and plan to continue doing so.