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What is a Stakeout?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

A stakeout is the process of monitoring a location, person, or group of persons. The process is usually done to monitor criminals and to catch them doing something illegal or illicit. The stakeout is a law enforcement technique that must be done properly and with the applicable permissions, and the process may be done through several means, including video surveillance, photography, computer surveillance, or simply visual observation. Many critics of the practice of the stakeout note that it can be construed as a violation of privacy, and others note its lack of cost-effectiveness.

Before other technologies were commonly used, a stakeout involved a person or team of people being physically on-site and concealed to view another party's activities from a safe distance. The people on the stakeout would observe patterns and behaviors, often for several days, weeks, or months at a time, in order to coordinate an appropriate response to the illegal or illicit activity. As new technologies entered the scene, photographers might take photos of the activity; video cameras could film a site or a person; audio equipment could be set up to listen in on the activities; and eventually, computers could monitor data being transferred into and out of a location.

Binoculars may be used during a stakeout.
Binoculars may be used during a stakeout.

All these practices have raised privacy concerns in many regions throughout the world, and different countries have different laws regarding the stakeout and other methods of surveillance. With the advent of social media, the laws and regulations regarding surveillance and stakeouts has been further complicated, and many countries still do not have adequate laws and regulations concerning such surveillance. In most cases, law enforcement officers need to obtain the proper clearances from superiors to coordinate and execute a stakeout, and the practices involved in the process must be done correctly in order to avoid violations of the regional laws.

Cameras may be used during a stakeout.
Cameras may be used during a stakeout.

Technology has had a significant impact on how surveillance and stakeouts are carried out. Some new technologies have even made it unnecessary to have people on-site to monitor activities. This makes the practice more efficient, safer, and more cost-effective, though using technology for surveillance has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, as well as supporters and adversaries. Computers, cameras, audio equipment, and so on can now be set up ahead of time to monitor criminal activity, record it, and send it to the appropriate monitors. Whether the evidence is admissible in court will depend on several factors, including the methods used to acquire the information.

Discussion Comments


I had a friend in high school who would constantly get followed by this police officer who patrolled our neighborhood after dark. At first she assumed she was doing something wrong, as many of us assume, or their was something wrong with her car, another common assumption when law enforcement is around.

But then when this officer kept following her, yet never pulled her over, she decided to tell her parents. They took the car to the shop, making sure everything was in working order. Then they even rode with her, to make sure she wasn't speeding or anything.

They finally realized the problem was the officer's fault, not the daughter's or the car's, so they called the police. Luckily, he was taken off of the neighborhood patrol. She still has nightmares and paranoia because of that harassment and misconduct.

Some officers need to get fired and have the same punishments that the rest of us have, instead of some of them basically getting away from murder because of their uniform.

I know that stakeouts only hold up in the court of law if the officers get an okay from their higher-ups, but I am sure some police officers do stake-outs that their superiors never know about because some aren't honest and some people have too much trust and/or fear in police officers.


I think it would be difficult to have a job watching other people. It seems like it would be either very dull or very intense, whereas I like a happy medium.

Also, I myself, would probably become very suspicious of all people, being paranoid of everyone. I think being a security guard would be a better option, if you like to watch people, because you do not have to worry about getting the correct evidence, stealing is a more cut and dry case than fraud and other crimes.

Stakeouts seem important to catch con-artists and other sneaky criminals, but it seems some law enforcers abuse their right to surveillance people and sometimes end of following people for no reason at all, and some even continue to do so, unless they get in trouble for it. Or the officers will plant evidence so their superiors will think it is a legit case when it isn't.

It is ironic that some law enforcement members are involved in corrupt behavior and some are con artists themselves, yet they are supposed to be protecting us from these same people.


@kentuckycat - You are totally correct. Police officers are not free to observe and harass whoever they want to. I use to live in a town where the police officers had a problem with college students for some reason so they simply profiled and harassed them, sometimes staking them out to simply have some fun with them. These police officers over stepped their boundaries on numerous occasions and continued to do so until someone finally decided to stand up to them and complain. Eventually the police officers were reprimanded for illegally staking out someone without any probable cause whatsoever.

Not only did they get in trouble for staking out the person they were transferred to another department after the judge issued a restraining order against the police officers for continually following the person around while off duty.


@TreeMan - I understand where you are going, but a police officer must have some type of probable cause to either pursue or stakeout someone otherwise they are going past their boundaries and they could be cited for harassing the people being staked out.

I am not sure if a warrant is necessary in order to conduct a stakeout, but I do know that probable cause is necessary in order to observe the person.

Now, police officers can observe someone as much as they want to, but the person can always file a complaint complaining and stating that the officer in question over stepped their boundaries in their police work and showed improper judgment.

The police officer could always try to claim they were suspicious of something and usually do not get in trouble, but there are instances in which police officers are charged with harassing suspects in this manner.


@titans62 - I would like to think that there are certain restrictions that police officers must abide by in order to conduct a stakeout. I am sure that they cannot just follow someone around for absolutely no reason otherwise that could be considered harassment.

I do know that if the police officer has some type of probable cause, like say someone driving late at night in a shady area, they are free to follow them in their car wherever and maybe even see where they go. It is up to the police officers to use their best judgment in situations in order to stakeout someone of interest and I imagine they could do so if they have some suspicion, no matter how unlikely it may be.


I have always wondered what privacy laws there are that concern stakeouts. Do police officers have to obtain a search warrant before conducting a stakeout or can they freely observe the person of interest?

I ask this because even if someone has not broken the law could a police officer simply sit in their squad car and observe them? I have always thought that people were free to do so especially if there was some reason for it.


I'm kind of a paranoid person and I always sort of wonder if someone is staking me out. It seems so easy these days to track a person's movements or their information. There have been times when I've stepped out of my house and seen a van up the street and really wondered if it was full of men with cameras and microphones.

I know that this is all silly. Frankly, my life is probably not interesting or scandalous enough for anyone to seriously want to stake it out. But you never really know. Someone could be watching you for reasons you would never guess. I will probably never be able to get this idea out of my head.


I used to work as a private investigator and conducting stakeouts in 80 percent of the job. You have o do some research and other kinds of field work here and there, but most of the job is just sitting and watching someone and following them wherever they go.

When I was doing it most of the cases I worked were suspicious insurance claims. So I would go and sit somewhere close to a persons house and then whenever they were visible or I could follow them around town I would video tape them. From the video the insurance companies could make judgements about whether a persons injuries were real or not.

I didn't have that job for long because let me tell you, stakeouts are very very boring. Most of the time nothing at all happens. There were days when I would go to stakeout a persons house and they would not leave once the entire day. 8 hours spent staring at a house and nothing happens. It really got to me after a while.

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    • Binoculars may be used during a stakeout.
      By: Dennis Oblander
      Binoculars may be used during a stakeout.
    • Cameras may be used during a stakeout.
      By: Africa Studio
      Cameras may be used during a stakeout.
    • A stakeout may be conducted in order to catch criminals in the act of committing an illegal activity.
      By: Robert Hoetink
      A stakeout may be conducted in order to catch criminals in the act of committing an illegal activity.
    • Stakeouts may result from ongoing activity in a particular neighborhood.
      By: Voyagerix
      Stakeouts may result from ongoing activity in a particular neighborhood.
    • A stakeout may be used in conjunction with a bait car to catch habitual thieves.
      By: Susan Stevenson
      A stakeout may be used in conjunction with a bait car to catch habitual thieves.
    • Private investigators use stakeouts to spy on romantic partners accused of infidelity.
      By: Mehmet Dilsiz
      Private investigators use stakeouts to spy on romantic partners accused of infidelity.