Are Cold Case Files Available to the Public?

American law enforcement is inundated with more cases than they can rightfully deal with at one time nowadays. Private investigators sometimes will take the charge when it comes to solving murder cases in order to lighten the backlog for police detectives nationwide. 

Private investigation can be a highly lucrative trade when you consider the state of affairs for police forces above. But what are the legalities of private investigations into cold case murders? Are cold case files even available to members of the general public? The short answer is yes, but there’s more depth to that statement than meets the eye at first glance.

In this article, we’re going to cover a few key details on looking up old murders yourself in a legal and organized manner. 

What Are Cold Case Investigation Rules for the General Public?

Almost all states accept assistance from private investigators regarding cold cases as long as each investigator stays strictly within the confines of the law. Since private citizens aren’t considered law enforcement, they are under different rules when it comes to solving cold case crimes. Here are a few pertinent ones to keep in mind.

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Don’t Impersonate the Law Enforcement

This is considered a major felony everywhere in the USA. If you’re planning on becoming a private investigator, never wear a badge, uniform, or any other signifier of official law enforcement while on a case.

No Citizen Arrests

While it’s true that some states allow for citizen’s arrests if a suspect in question has committed a felony, this is not always a smart idea. There are legal loopholes that can stick to a civilian far easier in court than in a legitimate officer of the peace. Individuals that see a crime occurring are urged to call local law enforcement and stay out of the detainment process.

No Trespassing

Private investigators can’t legally break into someone’s property for any reason. This is why law enforcement takes such great pains to obtain warrants in order to seize evidence located in private homes and residences.

No Privacy Breaching

This means no illegal wiretapping, sub-rosa recording, or any kind of activity where digital audio and video are collected can be initiated by a private investigator. 

So, long story short, private investigators who are looking into cold cases should always call the police if they have solid, verifiable evidence of a past crime.

Common Steps of Solving Cold Cases as a Private Investigator

Like many things in organized society, there’s a proper order of operations on conduct. Here’s a general outline of how cold cases can usually turn out for a private investigator, from start to finish.

1. Contact the Court System First

The first thing to do if someone is interested in helping to solve old murder cases is to contact the proper legal entities in your state. Sometimes criminal records need special permission from those above to be unsealed for private investigators to use accordingly. This all varies state by state, so it’s best to check yourself before devoting further time and resources to a search.

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2. Use Reverse Search Tools to Help Gather Data

Private investigators that are interested in maximizing their time and energy when it comes to cold cases should look into learning how to use modern internet search techniques beyond merely Googling items.’s reverse search tools are a smart choice. allows you to reference many different sources of public data, such as arrest records, court cases, addresses, professional licenses, and more. 

With reverse search tools, there’s no need to do many separate searches across different government agencies and websites. With’s cutting-edge tech, you can cast a wide net and gather considerable amounts of leads and data in just a few short minutes. 

3. Contact Witnesses and Others Involved in the Case

There’s a lot of work involved with private investigation, and a lot of it involves interpersonal communication. This is one of the main reasons why a lot of cold cases stay cold, especially if a lot of time has passed since the crime took place. People can pass away, or move out of the area the case happened in.

Access to public databases and reverse search tools, like those listed above, make this step far easier than it normally would have been decades ago. Researching witnesses and other people directly or indirectly involved in the case can still be a chore, but with the advent of modern search methods, it is far less so nowadays.

4. Repeat Steps 1-3 Until the Case Is Cracked

This is the most arduous step, and probably the one that can last the longest, sometimes for years on end. There’s the potential for a lot of frustration and grief, especially if more loose ends are showing than one would like.

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This is a profession where diligence and an unshakable view of righting wrongs will pay dividends in the end. It’s very much a slow-burning thing to do, but it’s rewarding and can greatly improve the morale and safety of your community in the long run.

5. An Additional Tip: Watch One’s Mental Health

Something else to keep in mind is to watch one’s stress level while on the beat. While a private investigator shouldn’t expect to deal with any possibility of danger or physical violence, there’s still a lot of emotional weight to what they do on the job. 

Many families have never fully recovered from the “what ifs” that have gone unanswered, sometimes for decades. If a private investigator isn’t perceiving that they are making enough of a dent in the case over a period of time, it can affect them negatively, especially if they feel like they are letting down the friends and family tied to the murder victim. 

Find the Information Cold Cases You Need

Investigating cold cases as a private citizen can be an exciting, and deeply rewarding endeavor to participate in. Just keep in mind that the law of the land applies to everyone, even those who are diligently assisting police in sometimes decades-old murder cases. However, if you follow the simple guidelines and the laws of your local jurisdiction, you should have no difficulty at all. 

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