A married couple is suing an Atlanta private investigation company over claims that it installed tracking devices on the vehicle and provided information on their whereabouts to the woman’s ex-husband, who had been ordered to stay away from her under a protective order entered by a Cobb County judge.
The complaint claims that Accurate Studies & Observations Investigations Inc. invaded the couple’s privacy, trespassed and intentionally inflicted emotional distress.
Georgia does not have a statute specifically outlawing the placement of tracking devices on citizens’ cars. A Cobb County jury last year cleared a private investigator of liability in a civil suit brought by woman whose car was tracked by a PI hired by her boss’s wife, who suspected the two were having an affair.
Marietta attorney Charles Engelberger III, who filed the new case in Fulton County last week, declined to discuss the details of the suit. But he said he was familiar with last year’s case and thought the facts underlying the new suit were more favorable for his clients.
Engelberger said he did not know who would be representing the PI firm.
According to the Georgia Secretary of State’s website, the CEO and registered agent for Accurate Studies is Marvin Suttles. There was no response to a message left on the voicemail for the business.
According to the complaint, at “some point prior to July 25, 2016,” and until then, Accurate Studies placed a tracking device on a Ford Explorer belonging to Tim and Debra Perkins.
The PI “tracked, monitored and recorded the movements” of the Perkinses and their family and reported them back to Debra Perkins’ ex-husband, Matthew Wilson.
At the time, “Wilson was prohibited from having any contact, both direct and indirect” with Perkins, pursuant to a 12-month protective order issued by a Cobb County Superior Court judge, the suit stated.
Wilson is not a party to the suit. His current attorney, Brian Daughdrill, said he was not involved at the time of the tracking alleged in the complaint. Daughdrill said Marietta attorney Parisa Herrin represented Wilson then. She couldn’t be reached. The Daily Report was unable to reach Wilson directly, but Daughdrill said he had informed him of the newspaper’s queries.
A review of Cobb County court records revealed that he and his former wife were divorced in 2012, and there was substantial, contentious litigation concerning visitation and custody of a child.
Debra Perkins also filed for and was granted multiple protective orders, including the one cited in the complaint.
Their complaint said the Perkinses’ “reasonable expectation of privacy” had been violated by the “monitoring and recording” of their movements and sharing that information with third parties, including WIlson.
It also accused the PI company of violation Georgia’s trespass law allowing damages to be recovered as a result of any “unlawful abuse or damage done to personal property of another,” asserting that placing the device constituted trespass.
The complaint doesn’t specify how the Perkinses found the device on their vehicle.
In last year’s Cobb County case, among the facts argued by the defendant, Marietta PI firm TFP and its principals, Eric and Pat Echols, were that the tracking device was placed in pursuit of an investigation into adultery—a crime in Georgia—and evidence that the device had not functioned properly in any case.
The defense attorney in that case, W. Bryant Green III, reviewed the Perkinses’ complaint at the Daily Report’s request.
“These are some fairly similar causes of action as those that came up in our case. There is not a great deal of case law that would govern this particular situation,” Green said.
“I think this case will hinge on what the purpose of this detective agency’s conduct was,” he said. “I believe detective agencies can conduct this activity if they’re working on a bona fide legal matter. Obviously, my opinion would change if the purpose of putting this device on the vehicle was part of scheme to harass the plaintiffs.”
“I’m struck by the fact that Mr. Wilson is not named in the complaint,” he said.
Green’s client Eric Echols said the Perkins case could be problematic for the defendant, depending upon what the evidence reveals.
Under Georgia law, a person who “places under surveillance” another person without their consent “in violation of a bond (or) judicial order” may be guilty of stalking.
Georgia law generally protects private investigators from stalking charges, Echols said, but the existence of the protective order changes things.
“Since this is a domestic case, the first thing that private investigator should have done is ask whether there were any restraining orders or protective orders in place,” Echols said.
“Private investigators are exempt from stalking [laws] as long as we’re working a bona fide case,” said Echols. “But it gets a little hairy for the private investigator to even follow anybody under a protective order, because the private investigator is an extension of the person who has the order on them.”
“[Wilson] could have gotten the private investigator in a world of crap if he didn’t tell him about the protective order,” Echols said.
Regarding the trespass claim, Echols said that, under current law, the key issue is where the vehicle was when the tracking device was attached.
“There’s a big difference where that GPS was put on,” said Echols. “If that private investigator went onto private property, that’s trespassing. That’s why I always go on a public parking lot if I’m going to attach a GPS.”
During the litigation in Echols’ case, Cobb Superior Court Judge Robert Leonard II—in an order denying a defense motion for summary judgment—lamented the paucity of law concerning the placement of tracking devices and citizens’ expectations of privacy.
“This case represents a classic situation where our jurisprudence and legislation have not kept up with rapidly changing technology that is widely available and cheaply obtained,” wrote Leonard in a 2016 order. “This court invites the Georgia General Assembly to take up this issue of GPS tracking in a healthy debate and potentially pass legislation that it deems necessary to provide Georgians with proper protection of their right to privacy.”
Echols echoed that call, saying his profession needed guidance.
“This is why legislation is needed and the law needs to be changed, so private investigators working on a bona fide case can use a GPS,” he said. “The law needs to specify when and how it can be done.”