What is False Imprisonment?

False imprisonment is an intentional tort that happens when you're detained against your will.

Updated by , Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

False imprisonment can be both a crime and a "tort," meaning a wrongful civil (non-criminal) act that causes harm. It happens when someone intentionally restricts your freedom of movement without your consent. False arrest, another tort that's similar to false imprisonment, occurs when you're wrongfully arrested and held against your will.

We'll walk you through the elements of a false imprisonment claim, explain how it differs from false arrest, and compare the tort of false imprisonment to the crime of false imprisonment.

What Is a Tort?

A tort is a wrongful act that causes a person some physical harm, emotional injury, or property loss. A person who commits a tort is sometimes called a "tortfeasor." Torts fall into two categories: Intentional torts and negligent torts.

Intentional Torts

As the name suggests, intentional torts involve acts that are done on purpose and that cause some kind of harm. Assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and fraud are examples of intentional torts.

Negligent Torts

Most personal injury lawsuits involve negligence. Negligence is the failure to act as carefully as would a reasonable person under the circumstances. There's no need to prove an intentional act because negligence means the tortfeasor acted carelessly, not on purpose. Cases involving car accidents, medical malpractice, and dangerous premises are common examples of negligence claims.

The Tort of False Imprisonment

False imprisonment is an intentional tort. The specific requirements for a false imprisonment claim depend on state law. But in general, here are the four common elements:

  • the intentional restraint of another person in a confined area
  • the restrained person doesn't consent to the restraint
  • the restrained person is aware of the restraint, and
  • the restraint is without legal justification.

False Imprisonment Example

As we review the false imprisonment claim elements, we'll refer to these example facts.

A robber sticks up a convenience store at gunpoint. During the crime, the robber orders the store clerk and several customers to lie face down on the floor, threatening to shoot them if they try to escape. Fearing for their lives, the clerk and customers do as they're told.

Intentional Restraint of Another Person

The first element—intentional restraint of another person in a confined area—sometimes involves the use of force. In most states, though, the actual use of force isn't a necessary element. A credible threat to use force, express or implied, is enough. The key question is whether a reasonable person would believe they're being restrained. If so, this element usually is satisfied.

In our example, the clerk and customers were restrained in the enclosed store under threat of being shot and reasonably believed they were not free to leave. The first element is satisfied.

Without the Restrained Person's Consent

If the person who's being restrained consents to the restraint, there's no false imprisonment. But consent must be freely given. If it's coerced or given under duress, the consent is invalid. Consent (or lack of consent) can be expressed, or it might be implied based on the circumstances.

In our example, a court would have no difficulty finding that neither the clerk nor the customers consented to be restrained at gunpoint. The second element is met.

Awareness of Restraint

The person who's being restrained must have been aware of the restraint at the time it happened. In most cases, awareness of restraint isn't a problem. It might be an issue, though, in cases where the restrained person can't perceive or understand the restraint.

For example, when the restrained person is intoxicated to the point of unconsciousness, awareness can be a problem. The same is true if the restrained person is injured or suffers a disability that prevents them from understanding that they're being restrained.

Returning to our example, the clerk and customers were all clearly aware they were being restrained as it happened, satisfying the awareness requirement.

Restraint Is Without Legal Justification

If there's a legal justification for the restraint, there's no false imprisonment. Justifications vary from state to state, but here are some common examples.

  • Lawful arrest: A lawful arrest by law enforcement authorities justifies reasonable restraint.
  • Shopkeeper's privilege: Detention by a shopkeeper for a reasonable period of time is allowed in most states if the shopkeeper has a reasonable suspicion that the restrained person committed a crime, like shoplifting.
  • Consent: As mentioned above, voluntary consent is a defense to a claim of unlawful restraint.

Obviously, none of these justifications would apply to our armed robbery example. There was no legal justification for the robber's false imprisonment of the clerk and customers. Since all the elements are met, the clerk and customers would have viable false imprisonment claims against the armed robber.

How Is the Crime of False Imprisonment Different?

False imprisonment can be both a tort and a crime. How do the two differ? There are three important differences.

Different Parties

A tort lawsuit is a civil case brought by an injured plaintiff who claims to have been falsely imprisoned by a tortfeasor defendant. A criminal case is brought by the state, typically through a county prosecutor, against a defendant who is alleged to have committed the crime of false imprisonment.

Different Standards of Proof

In a tort lawsuit, the plaintiff needs to prove that the defendant is liable (legally responsible) for false imprisonment by a legal standard of proof called "preponderance of the evidence." Under the preponderance standard, the plaintiff wins if they prove it's even slightly more likely than not that the defendant falsely imprisoned the plaintiff.

In a criminal case, the prosecutor must prove the defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." This is the highest standard of proof in the law. There's not a generally accepted definition of the reasonable doubt standard, but it's often described as proof of guilt to a moral certainty, not an absolute certainty.

Different Penalties

A tortfeasor who's found liable for false imprisonment most likely will have to pay compensation (called "damages") to the winning plaintiff. The penalties in a criminal case, of course, can be much more severe: Prison or jail time, fines, or restitution to crime victims.

False Arrest and How It Differs From False Imprisonment

False arrest is an intentional tort claim that's closely related to false imprisonment. Like false imprisonment, false arrest can be a crime as well as a tort.

The elements of a false arrest claim are largely indistinguishable from those of a false imprisonment claim. The key difference between the two is that in a false arrest case, the plaintiff is initially detained (that is, arrested) under a claim of legal authority. In other words, false arrest begins with the act of an arrest, but false imprisonment begins merely with confinement in an enclosed area.

For example, a police officer who arrests a suspect based on a belief that there's probable cause to arrest is making an arrest under a claim of legal authority. If it turns out that there wasn't probable cause to arrest, and if the other elements of a false arrest claim are present, the wrongly-arrested suspect might have a false arrest tort claim.

If it helps, here's another way to think about how the two claims are different. All false arrest claims are also false imprisonment claims. But not all false imprisonment claims are also false arrest claims.

Why? Because not all false imprisonment claims start with an arrest (that is, a restraint) that's grounded in some legal authority. Think back to our convenience store robbery example. It meets all the requirements for a false imprisonment case. But the restraint didn't involve an arrest based on legal authority, so there was no false arrest.

Get Help With Your False Imprisonment Claim

If you think that you were falsely imprisoned, you might wonder if you've got a tort claim. The elements of a false imprisonment claim are fairly easy to recite, but applying them to a real-life tort claim can be more difficult. Your best chance for success will come by hiring an experienced personal injury lawyer to guide you through the process.

Here's how to find a lawyer near you who's best for your and your case.

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