The hiring of a private investigator is done to obtain witness statements, interview witnesses, preserve evidence, find witnesses, discover evidence like possible video cameras etc. Just the retention of a PI does not mean a defense exists. An attorney can review the facts and determine if an investigator is needed, or when an investigator is needed. Personally, I love the availability of having an investigator. But they are not cheap, and can not represent you in court.
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State's investigators are looking for evidence that supports the state's claim. A private investigator will be working to support your defense. This person will then be able to testify at trial about the results of his investigation. Sometimes his testimony is the only way to get certain evidence in. Your defense attorney will know qualified investigators in your area.
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A private investigator can help in a number of ways depending on the case and charge at issue. Typically, PI's are former cops and therefore have a great deal of knowledge regarding police procedures, how to locate a person (witness?), and do a lot of the grunt work in working up a case. Like most things in life there a re good ones and not so good ones. From past experience, a good investigator can make all the difference in the world to a case.
In addition to what all the others have said, I would add, a PI in the end may find nothing htat helps you, or the PI may find taht piece of evidence that leads to a dismissal or not guilty verdict. there is often no way to know in advance. One thing is for sure, if you do not hire a PI, then you know that you will not find evidence to get you off unless you or your attorney find it (your attorney is not likely to find it if you will not hire a pI becaue the attorney charges more per hour than the PI, and will save his/her hours for legal work).