What is False Imprisonment?

This type of intentional tort (which is also a crime) occurs when you're detained against your will.

False imprisonment can be both a crime and a civil cause of action (also known as a tort). Falling under the category of intentional torts, false imprisonment involves intentionally restricting another person's freedom of movement. Closely related to false imprisonment, false arrest is another intentional tort (and potential crime) that involves the restriction of someone's freedom with the added element of the ostensible weight of the law behind that restriction. Read on to learn more about false imprisonment and false arrest.

False Imprisonment: The Intentional Tort

False imprisonment is an intentional tort. A tort is a wrongful act that results in harm to another. That harm can be a physical or psychological injury, or damage to property. The type of tort is determined by the mental state of the tortfeasor (the person committing the tort). Unlike torts that occur through car accidents or slips and falls, intentional torts have nothing to do with negligence or reckless behavior. Instead, intentional torts are acts committed with a purpose -- with intent. The tortfeasor intentionally commits an act that causes harm to another.

The commonly accepted definition of false imprisonment defines the tort as:

  • the unlawful restraint of another
  • against their will, and
  • without legal justification.

Proving the first element of false imprisonment involves looking at the facts and determining whether there was any force -- or threat of some kind -- used in restraining the accusing party. It is important to note that actual force is not necessary. While locking someone in a car or in a room or otherwise blocking their exit is relatively clear-cut, an implied threat of force is also enough to prove intent. An example would be threatening to injure a party if they attempt to leave, even though the exits are not blocked.

Proving the second element of false imprisonment involves applying a "reasonable person" standard. This means that the judge or jury will determine whether a reasonable person in the same factual situation would believe that they have been detained against their will. Here is where certain factual defenses come into play. For example, if someone is holding your arm but you are able -- or should be able -- to break free, there is no false imprisonment. If someone blocks your way out one door but there is an exit available through another door that is not blocked, there is no false imprisonment.

The final element of false imprisonment involves determining whether there is a legal basis for the detention. Many legal bases for detention do exist. Examples include:

  • a lawful arrest by law enforcement authorities
  • detention by a shopkeeper for a reasonable amount of time if the shopkeeper has a reasonable suspicion that you may have stolen something (this is called Shopkeeper's Privilege) and
  • voluntary consent.

If you consent to detention, without duress, you may not later claim you were falsely imprisoned. An example of this would be turning yourself in as a suspect in a crime. Even if your name is cleared and you are found not guilty, you cannot then claim false imprisonment.

If you can prove all the elements of false imprisonment, you may be able to recover personal injury damages.

False Imprisonment: The Crime

False imprisonment may also be a crime, as well as an intentional tort, depending upon the laws of a particular jurisdiction. A tort is a civil offense that results in a judgment of liability or lack thereof. Being found liable results in being obligated to pay monetary damages. A criminal offense, on the other hand, is a cause of action brought by the state in defense of the public welfare. It is punishable by fine or imprisonment.

False imprisonment as a crime varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but the elements are generally the same. The prosecutor must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that all the elements of false imprisonment were met. In most cases, false imprisonment is a misdemeanor. False imprisonment becomes kidnapping if the detention is for a significant length of time or involves moving the detained party some distance from the initial point of detention.

False Arrest

False arrest, as stated above, is closely related to false imprisonment. False arrest is when a party is detained and held without probable cause, or without an appropriate warrant, or without a court order. Police agencies can commit false arrest, as can normal citizens.

Determining whether probable cause or a legal basis for the detention exists is the key in false arrest cases. The difference between false arrest and false imprisonment is subtle, but important. A false arrest involves a defendant asserting that he has the backing of the law. False imprisonment is any unlawful confinement. Like false imprisonment, false arrest can also be a crime as well as a tort. Learn more about Intentional Tort Claims.

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