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What Is False Imprisonment?

False Imprisonment is a serious crime

False imprisonment occurs when a person intentionally and illegally restrains another person's ability to move freely. In a private lawsuit under civil law, false imprisonment can be brought as an intentional tort law claim (civil wrongful act).

In criminal law, a government prosecutor can bring criminal charges against a defendant for false imprisonment. This may be known as unlawful imprisonment in the first degree and is detailed in the penal code for your state.

This article discusses false imprisonment and defenses to false imprisonment.

Examples of False Imprisonment Situations

For example, an armed bank robber yells at the customers to get down on the floor, threatening to shoot them if they try to leave. Here, there is the threat of force. Since they know they might be killed or suffer serious bodily harm if they try to leave, they are being held against their will. The captive bank customers may be able to claim damages.

In a personal injury case, this could place civil liability on the robber for physical injuries or intentional infliction of emotional distress. They may also be liable for punitive damages, or damages designed to punish them for their egregious intentional acts.

The bank robber may be charged with the crime of false imprisonment. The crime can be charged as a misdemeanor (minor wrongdoing) or a felony (serious crime), depending on the circumstances. Even the police may be charged with false imprisonment if they exceed their authority. For example, they may wrongfully detain someone without legal justification.

Any person who intentionally restricts another's freedom of movement without their consent may be liable for false imprisonment. False imprisonment is both a crime and a civil wrong, like other offenses, including assault and battery. It can occur in a room, on the streets, or even in a moving vehicle.

Similarly, "false arrest" is when someone arrests another individual without the legal authority to do so. False arrest becomes false imprisonment the moment the victim is taken into custody.

Elements of False Imprisonment Claims

All states (jurisdictions) have false imprisonment laws to protect against unlawful confinement. To prove a false imprisonment claim as a tort in a civil lawsuit, the following elements must be present:

  1. There was a willful detention;
  2. The detention was without consent; and
  3. The detention was unlawful

A false imprisonment cause of action (legal claim) can come in many forms. Physical force is often used, but it isn't required. The restraint of a person may be imposed by physical barriers, such as being locked in a car. Restraint also can be by unreasonable duress. An example would be holding someone's valuables with the intent to coerce them to remain at a location.

To claim false imprisonment, you must reasonably believe that you were confined in a bounded area. A court will determine whether the belief is reasonable by determining what a reasonable person would do or believe under similar circumstances. Additionally, the actor must intend to commit the confinement without the legal privilege to do so. For instance, shopkeepers investigating shoplifting may have the necessary privilege to meet legal standards.

More Examples of False Imprisonment

Examples of false imprisonment may include:

  • A person locking another person in a room without their permission
  • A person grabbing onto another person without their consent, and holding them so that they cannot leave
  • A security guard or store owner who detains someone for an unreasonable amount of time without justification
  • An employer who detains someone for questioning for an unreasonable amount of time for suspected theft
  • Nursing home staff medicating a patient without their consent under physical or emotional threat

Examples That Are Not False Imprisonment

The following examples don't constitute false imprisonment:

  • A claim that you were falsely imprisoned simply because you were found innocent of a crime
  • A person who grabs your arm while you know you can free yourself from their grip without fear of harm
  • A storekeeper who detains you for a reasonable amount of time for questioning based on probable cause. For example, they saw you take a concealed item out of the store without paying for it
  • A person who closes the front door and asks you not to leave, but you know you can leave without harmful consequences

Defenses to False Imprisonment Claims

Defenses to false imprisonment claims often turn on whether the person claiming the imprisonment gave consent. Consent can either be actual or implied. Consent is not needed when the person who confined another had reasonable grounds to justify the imprisonment. Below are common defenses to a false imprisonment claim:

Voluntary Consent

A person who consents to confinement may not later claim false imprisonment. The consent must be obtained without duress, coercion, or fraud. Therefore, voluntary consent to confinement is often a defense to false imprisonment.

Police Privilege

In all states, police officers have the lawful authority to detain someone with legal justification. This usually means the police must have probable cause or reasonable suspicion. These are different legal standards that allow police to suspect that wrongdoing or a crime has been committed.

Shopkeeper's Privilege

Many states have laws protecting merchants from false imprisonment claims. These laws typically allow merchants to detain patrons if they have the reasonable, good faith belief the patron committed theft. A shopkeeper is usually limited to detaining a person to:

  • Request or verify ID
  • Make a reasonable inquiry into whether the person has purchased the merchandise
  • Hold the person in custody until a peace officer arrives

In determining liability, a court will look at whether the store's actions under the circumstances were reasonable. A guilty shoplifter can still sue for false imprisonment if the detention was unreasonable.

Citizen's Arrest

In some instances, a person who is not a law enforcement official can make a "citizen's arrest" by calling for a peace officer. This can happen when a crime is committed or attempted in their presence. However, this defense is not meant to give citizens the right to take the place of law enforcement.

False Imprisonment vs. Kidnapping

False imprisonment and kidnapping are different. The crime of kidnapping occurs when one person abducts another to a new place. This is usually followed by holding them against their will. False imprisonment cannot occur in a kidnapping situation because the person has been moved to a new area.

Kidnapping can involve:

  • The use of force
  • Unlawful restraint
  • Bodily injury
  • Traveling a substantial distance
  • Crossing state borders

There are state laws regarding the specific requirements for aggravated kidnapping, second-degree kidnapping, or other kidnapping charges. All of these are criminal charges in nature and are serious charges. This is true even if a non-custodial parent takes their child without the other parent's consent.

Free Claim Review

After reading this article, you may be wondering how to initiate a private civil lawsuit for false imprisonment. You might also need other related legal advice if your case involves criminal law.

A great first step is to speak with a personal injury attorney in your area today. An experienced personal injury lawyer from a law firm focused on these types of claims will be able to review your claim during a free consultation.

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