David Knott wants to help people file paperwork to recover some of the billions of dollars in “unclaimed” property that is being held by the State of Illinois. But, to do so, the government says he needs a totally irrelevant license—as a private detective.

People and companies lose property all the time: uncashed checks, forgotten accounts, misplaced savings, and the like. By law, states take possession of such property, but they are supposed to return it to its lawful owner. All you have to do is submit paperwork asking the government for your property. But that’s not always as easy as it sounds. In many instances, people or companies might not even realize they are missing property, or that it is being held by the government. The State of Illinois alone holds five billion dollars in property that has never been claimed. 

Enter David and his small company, United Asset Recovery, Inc. David has spent years working tirelessly to help people and businesses recover unclaimed property from states across the country. For a long time, he was able to do so in Illinois without incident.

In 2021, however, Illinois sent David a cease-and-desist letter when he submitted a claim asking the state to return a client’s money. The state refused to even consider the claim—or any other claims—until David first obtained a private detective license.

The problem? To get that license, David would have to take an exam on a host of topics that have nothing to do with filing government paperwork—including firearms handling, crime scene investigation, and electronic surveillance. Even worse, David would also have to put his unclaimed property business on hold so that he could spend three years apprenticed to an actual private eye, doing work completely unrelated to unclaimed property.

That makes no sense. It is also unconstitutional. The First Amendment protects the right to speak, and it also protects the right to petition the government. David does both: He reads government databases to identify people with unclaimed property, he tells them that they have a right to get their property back, and then he files paperwork with the government to claim the property. The government cannot require a license to speak and petition.

So, now, David has teamed up with the Institute for Justice to sue Illinois and vindicate his legal right to speak and petition the government under the First Amendment without risking prosecution under an unconstitutional law. The crux of the lawsuit is simple: The government cannot require training on firearms and surveillance to file paperwork.

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Case Documents

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Recovering People’s Unclaimed Property

Individuals and businesses routinely leave checks uncashed and accounts abandoned in states around the country, often for years at a time. In Illinois, banks and other institutions are required to hand over this misplaced property to the state. This isn’t small change—the state is holding more than five billion dollars in unclaimed funds.[1] That money is supposed to be returned, but owners often don’t know if they are missing property to begin with, much less where that property is or how to reclaim it. And, in the meantime, the money sits in a state account the legislature can dip into to patch holes in its budget.[2]

That’s where David and his California-based company United Asset Recovery come in to help. David works as a “claimant representative”—he finds unclaimed property in states across the country and does all the work to get it returned to the owner. In exchange, David keeps a small percentage—generally 10%—of the amount recovered. Over the years, David has developed a loyal client base consisting mostly of companies that have claims for lost property in multiple states across the country.

In Illinois, finding and recovering property is time consuming. First, David searches a publicly accessible database of unclaimed property. Next, he asks the owner if they want his help recovering the property. If they do, David starts a claim for the property. A lengthy back-and-forth ensues where David’s company assembles the necessary—and often voluminous—paperwork and supporting documents to establish ownership of the property, then submits them to the state. Only if the property is returned does David receive his fee.

The Private Detective License

David has reliably helped his clients recover assets for decades without incident. But in August 2021, the Illinois government stopped him in his tracks.

David filed claims for three of his clients with the Illinois State Treasurer, the state official who handles property claims. Rather than send David’s clients their money, however, the treasurer sent David a cease-and-desist letter. The Treasurer informed David that Illinois law bans him from helping clients recover property unless he is a “licensed private detective” in the state.[3]

A detective’s license requires three years of experience either working “full-time for a licensed private detective agency” or doing similar investigative work, such as law enforcement.[4] That requirement would be difficult to fulfill because David isn’t a detective. His office is in California, which doesn’t require claimant representatives to be licensed detectives, and for good reason: David’s work doesn’t require any of the in-the-field sleuth work that detectives are trained to perform. In fact, nearly all of David’s work involves public documents, which by definition are meant for the public and don’t need a license to access.

The Illinois detective’s exam highlights how different David’s work is from that of a detective. The exam covers “evaluating crime scenes,” “surveillance techniques,” “forensic science and technology,” and “interviewing and interrogation,” among other topics.[5] Unsurprisingly, proving ownership of a misplaced bank account hasn’t required David to evaluate a crime scene or interrogate a suspect. And the exam doesn’t cover what David actually does—looking through databases and filing paperwork.

That’s why David has partnered with the Institute for Justice to sue to vindicate his right to submit property claims without an irrelevant license.

The Legal Claims

David’s legal claims are straightforward and fall into two categories—First Amendment Free Speech and Petition claims, and a 14th Amendment Due Process claim.

The First Amendment protects David’s right to speak and petition the government. David’s efforts to find and recover his clients’ property in Illinois are protected by those rights. David wants to speak: He wants to search public databases, talk to his clients about information that he found in those databases, and then tell the government whose money it’s holding. He also wants to petition: He wants to file claims with the government to get his clients’ property back. Requiring David to pass an examination on CSI skills before he can ask the government to return his clients’ uncashed checks cannot be squared with the First Amendment.

In fact, Illinois’ law is so nonsensical that it would be unconstitutional even if it didn’t violate David’s First Amendment rights. The 14th Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses require some rational connection between an occupation and state laws restricting people from practicing that occupation. And passing an exam on tailing suspects simply has nothing to do with submitting paperwork to recover unclaimed property.

The Broader Context—Occupational Speech

This case is part of IJ’s work to protect occupational speech. IJ has successfully challenged licensing requirements for tour guides in Charleston and Washington, D.C., as violations of the First Amendment, as well as regulations of a vocational school in California, an engineer in Oregon, and surveying in Mississippi. IJ is also litigating cases:

  • In California, representing a man who cannot read through emails his clients send him to look for illegal spam without obtaining a private investigator’s license;
  • In Indiana, representing a woman who cannot give end-of-life guidance unless she is licensed as a funeral director; and
  • In New York, representing a nonprofit that wants to help people fill out basic legal forms.

These cases—like David’s—advance the principle that the First Amendment fully protects people who talk, write, or analyze things to earn a living. There’s no question that the First Amendment protects the occupational speech of journalists, actors, authors, artists, and professors. But some state governments have still speculated that speech by so-called “professionals” is somehow outside the First Amendment. IJ’s occupational speech cases push back against that theory.

Speech is speech, and the First Amendment protects your right to speak regardless of your chosen career. As the Supreme Court recently explained, “[s]peech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by ‘professionals.’”[6]

The Litigation Team

David Knott and his company are represented by Institute for Justice Attorney James Knight and Senior Attorney Rob Johnson.

About the Institute for Justice

The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit, public interest law firm that defends free speech rights nationwide. This case is part of IJ’s work challenging laws restricting occupational speech, which ban people from speaking on certain topics unless they obtain irrelevant licenses from the government. In Oregon, IJ defended a man accused of unlicensed engineering when he questioned the math used to time local traffic lights. And in Texas, IJ is defending a veterinarian who was fined for answering questions about animals that he hadn’t physically examined.

[1] Unclaimed Property, Illinois State Treasurer, https://icash.illinoistreasurer.gov.

[2] See, e.g. 765 ILCS 1026/15-801 (diverting unclaimed property to the State Pensions Fund).

[3] 765 ILCS 1026/15-1302.

[4] 225 ILCS 447/15-10(a)(6).

[5] See Private Detective and Private Security Contractor Licensure Examination Information, Continental Testing, https://www.continentaltesting.net/downloads/7-17%20DETSECGDE.pdf (the official study guide linked to by the Board’s website).

[6] Nat’l Inst. of Fam. & Life Advocs. v. Becerra, 585 U.S. 755, 767 (2018).