FARGO — In a rare case, a private investigator has been convicted of placing a tracking device on a West Fargo woman’s SUV last year and could lose his license for what he called a common practice in his profession.
The North Dakota Private Investigation and Security Board plans to review an administrative complaint against Jon Daniel Jacobson, 46, the owner of 701 Investigations in Fargo, said Monte Rogneby, an attorney for the board. Prosecutors have said the Leonard man's actions were inappropriate and intruded on personal property.
But Jacobson argued he was within his rights as a private investigator to surveil people for his clients, adding that he has used similar devices to follow people thousands of times.
“As a private investigator, we have kind of extra rights that normal people don’t have, including access to information,” he said, citing North Dakota law that details what private investigators are allowed to do. “One of those rights that we have, in exchange for a fee, which I was paid on this case, that we have the right to track the movements of others.”
Last month, a Cass County jury found Jacobson guilty on a misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct-harassment. He was acquitted on a second count that accused him of putting a tracking device on a vehicle owned by the woman’s boyfriend.
“It did create significant fear and alarm,” prosecutor Reid Brady said of Jacobson putting the devices on vehicles.
The Private Investigation and Security Board (PISB) complaint could result in a letter of reprimand, fines or the revocation of Jacobson’s private investigator license.
It’s possible the conviction is the first in North Dakota history that was the result of using a tracking device to follow someone. State law and PISB rules do not address the use of tracking devices by private investigators, according to an April 16, 2018, email from the West Fargo Police Department to PISB Executive Director John Shorey III.
On Wednesday, Jacobson showed the type of tracking device he often uses. The rectangular piece of technology goes into a weather-proof box before being attached to a vehicle with a magnet, sending signals for him to trace.
“This is done thousands of times per day by private investigators throughout the country,” Jacobson said. “If this were a problem, I wouldn’t have been the first.”
'Between a rock and a hard place'
Court documents filed in August 2018 detail how the woman and her boyfriend found tracking devices on their vehicles in April 2018. The woman initially thought her estranged husband may have planted the devices, but investigators found no evidence he was involved.
West Fargo police, who tracked the devices to Jacobson, asked him to reveal who asked him to investigate the woman, but he declined.
Jacobson, who represented himself during the trial, said someone hired him to follow the woman and acknowledged putting the device on her car. He said a code of ethics for private investigators says he has to keep his client’s information confidential “under any circumstances.”
“I kind of got caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said.
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Prosecutors made several offers to Jacobson if he gave up his client’s name, including dismissal of all charges, Brady said.
Jacobson accused law enforcement of lying to obtain search warrants and accused prosecutors of using criminal prosecution as a coercive tool to reveal his client’s information. He filed a motion to dismiss the case and demanded a Franks hearing, which is meant to prove false information was used to obtain a search warrant. Both motions were denied.
Jacobson received no jail time after being found guilty, but he was placed on probation for 360 days and was ordered to pay $401 in fines and court fees.
'Something that we don't do'
PISB members met Monday in a closed-door session to discuss legal strategy regarding Jacobson’s case. After reopening the meeting to the public, the board voted to have Rogneby draft an administrative complaint.
Serving as a special assistant attorney general for the board, Rogneby said Jacobson will have a chance to contest the complaint before board members decide to discipline him or reach a settlement. That process could take several months.
Rogneby declined to say how likely it is the board would revoke Jacobson's license. Jacobson said this is the first time he's faced a complaint in his 20-plus years as a private investigator.
Licensed private investigators are allowed to surveil people, said Ross Rolshoven, a private investigator in Grand Forks who owns Great Plains Claims. But several private investigators, in an interview, said they don't use them.
“That is something that we don’t do,” said Rolshoven, who has been a private investigator for more than 30 years. “To put a tracking device on someone else’s vehicle, I think it may be stepping across the line of privacy issues.”
Sources interviewed for this story said they hadn’t heard of another North Dakota case in which a private investigator was charged with a crime for using a tracking device. Jacobson said he is the first in the state to be convicted for the practice.
A review found a handful of cases in which private investigators were charged criminally for similar reasons, but none that resulted in convictions.
A more notable case involves famous fitness instructor Richard Simmons, who sued Los Angeles private investigator Scott Brian Matthews for allegedly putting a tracking device on the vehicle of Simmons’ caretaker, according to news reports. Prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Matthews last year.
In another California case, private investigator Christopher Joseph Lanzillo pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 2017 to a year in jail for tracking a former Costa Mesa mayor with a GPS device, according to the Orange County Register.
A jury sided in 2017 with private investigator Eric Echols in Georgia after a woman filed a lawsuit accusing him of putting a tracking device on her vehicle, according to the Marietta Daily Journal. He was never charged with a crime, the article said.
Jacobson said he doesn’t plan to appeal his conviction, though he called the situation a “travesty of justice.”