What Is False Imprisonment?
By FindLaw Staff | Legally reviewed by Garrett Monteagudo, Esq. | Last reviewed November 28, 2022
This article has been written and reviewed for legal accuracy, clarity, and style by FindLaw’s team of legal writers and attorneys and in accordance with our editorial standards.
The last updated date refers to the last time this article was reviewed by FindLaw or one of our contributing authors. We make every effort to keep our articles updated. For information regarding a specific legal issue affecting you, please contact an attorney in your area.
False imprisonment occurs when a person (who doesn't have legal authority or justification) intentionally restrains another person's ability to move freely. This can also be called 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. 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, and the bank robber may be charged with the crime of false imprisonment. These crimes can be a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances. Even the police may be charged with false imprisonment if they exceed their authority. For example, if they detain someone without justification.
In fact, 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 he or she is taken into custody.
Elements of a False Imprisonment Claim
All states 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:
- There was a willful detention;
- The detention was without consent; and
- The detention was unlawful.
False imprisonment 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. Or, restraint can be by unreasonable duress (for example, 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. 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 privilege to do so. For instance, shopkeepers investigating shoplifting or civilians who have witnessed a felony have the necessary privilege to meet legal standards.
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-based on their appearance
- An employer who detains someone for questioning for an unreasonable amount of time for suspected theft
- Nursing home staff who medicates a patient without their consent under physical or emotional threat
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 but you know you can free yourself from his grip without fear of retaliation
- A storekeeper who detains you for a reasonable amount of time for questioning based on probable cause, such as if she 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 through an open side door
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:
A person who consents to confinement, without duress, coercion, or fraud, may not later claim false imprisonment. Therefore, voluntary consent to confinement is often a defense to false imprisonment.
In all states, police officers have the right to detain someone they have probable cause to believe has engaged in wrongdoing, or when they believe a crime has been committed.
Many states have laws protecting merchants from false imprisonment claims. These laws typically allow merchants to detain patrons if they have the reasonable 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, and/or to 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 then if the detention was unreasonable.
In some instances, a person who is not a law enforcement official can make a "citizen's arrest" by calling for a peace officer 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
The main difference is that the crime of kidnapping is when one person abducts another to a new place, usually followed by holding them against their will. False imprisonment cannot occur in a kidnapping situation because the person has been removed to a new area. This can involve the use of force, unlawful restraint, bodily injury, traveling a substantial distance, and 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, 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 lawsuit for false imprisonment or other related legal advice. A great first step in answering that question, and any others you might have, is to speak with a personal injury attorney in your area today. An experienced personal injury attorney from a law firm focused on these types of claims will be able to review your claim during a free consultation.
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.
Contact a qualified personal injury attorney to make sure your rights are protected.