What Is False Imprisonment?

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False imprisonment can be a crime, but it can also be a tort (civil action). Within the civil realm, false imprisonment is an intentional tort that means someone’s freedom of movement was intentionally restricted. It should not be confused with false arrest, however, despite the fact that the two are closely related and both can be crimes and torts.

What Is False Imprisonment?

False imprisonment means people were restrained against their will in an unlawful manner, meaning the restrainer does not have justification or authority to do so. It is possible, in some cases, for the police to be charged with false imprisonment if they go above and beyond their authority. The offense of false imprisonment is criminal and civil. It can happen anywhere, from a moving vehicle to a room. Whenever people are not able to move freely and they are made incapable of doing so against their will, there is false imprisonment.

False imprisonment is not the same as false arrest. However, the latter generally leads to the first. If someone arrests people without the authority to do so, it escalates into false imprisonment when they are taken into custody. This is why the two are so closely linked.

In many cases, false imprisonment involves physical force, but a threat of violence can also be used. Restraint, meanwhile, can be physical or it can be duress.

Elements of False Imprisonment

False imprisonment laws exist in all states. If people file a civil lawsuit, they must demonstrate that:

  • A willful detention took place.
  • No consent was given for the detention.
  • The detention itself was unlawful.

The complainants in these cases must be able to demonstrate that they believed they were confined. It will be up to the court to judge whether that belief was reasonable or not.

Another important element is that the complainants must demonstrate that intentional yet unlawful confinement took place. If, for instance, a shopkeeper locks his doors because he believes there is a shoplifter, it would not be classed as false imprisonment.

False Imprisonment Defenses

In the vast majority of cases, lawyers will focus on the consent element. They will suggest that implied consent was given, or that the defendant had justifiable and reasonable grounds to confine the complainant. As such, the most common defenses, in both criminal and civil cases, are:

  • That voluntary consent was given, claiming that the individuals agreed to the confinement without fraud, coercion, or duress. If they did so, they are no longer able to claim false imprisonment. This is the most common defense.
  • That confinement was done under police privilege. All police offers, regardless of which state they work in, are allowed to detain individuals if they believe they are engaged in crimes or other wrongdoings.
  • That confinement took place under shopkeeper’s privilege. In many states, merchants are protected from these claims as they are allowed to detain people in their store for a short time if they reasonably believe that retail theft has occurred. It is important to understand the different laws in different states, however, as it sometimes means that the shopkeeper can only ask the patron for an ID and whether they have proof of purchase. In other states, however, they can lock their shop while they await the arrival of peace officers. The court must decide whether or not the shopkeeper acted reasonably. If not, then he can still be sued criminally and civilly for false imprisonment.
  • That people are being held under a citizen’s arrest. Those who are not law enforcement officers are allowed to make a citizen’s arrest. However, they must immediately call for a peace officer when crimes are attempted or committed in their presence, leading to them making a citizen’s arrest. A citizen’s arrest does not give ordinary citizens the same rights as law enforcement officers, however.

False Imprisonment Tort

In most cases, false imprisonment is trialed as a tort case. This is because the victims have suffered psychological or physical injury either to themselves or to property. The mental state of the person committing the false imprisonment will be taken into consideration, as it is an intentional tort, rather than an accident.

The complainants must prove that they were unlawfully restrained. The courts will determine whether any kind of force or threat was used in this. They then have to prove that their imprisonment was against their will. In many situations, this is where the tort case falls apart. For instance, if people are being held by their arm against their will, the courts would determine hat they should have been able to break free. Hence, no false imprisonment will have taken place. Similarly, if there are two exits to a property, and only one of them is blocked, then it will also not be classed as false imprisonment. This is why the unlawful restraint is so important, because the complainants must be able to demonstrate that they reasonably believed they could not get away.

Finally, the complainants must prove that there was no legal basis for them to be detained. In other words, they should not have been under arrest, they should not be stopped by a shopkeeper, and they should not have consented to their detention. If any kind of voluntary consent is given, it is no longer possible to prove false imprisonment. For instance, if they are wanted by the police and turn themselves in, after which it is proven that they were innocent, they will not be able to claim false imprisonment anymore.

Should people be able to prove all three elements, however, they may bring civil charges against the person who detained them, and they could be awarded personal injury damages.

What Is False Arrest?

False arrest has been mentioned a few times because it is so closely linked to false imprisonment. It essentially means that people are detained and stopped from moving without there being any probably cause to do so. For instance, the person who is detaining them may not have a court order or warrant. False arrests can be committed by both law enforcement officers and by ordinary citizens. It must be determined whether or not the detention has a legal basis. In a false arrest, the defendants will attempt to assert that they were entitled to arrest someone, whereas in a false imprisonment, the defendant will attempt to assert that they had consent, or the right to detain someone. If false arrest is proven, then false imprisonment is generally also proven.


  • False Imprisonment. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://injury.findlaw.com/torts-and-personal-injuries/false-imprisonment.html
  • What Is False Imprisonment. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/what-false-imprisonment.html
Geoffrey Nathan, Esq.

About Geoffrey Nathan, Esq.

Geoffrey G Nathan is a top federal crimes lawyer and Chief Editor of FederalCharges.com. He is a licensed attorney in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since 1988, admitted to practice in both Federal and State courts. If you have questions about your federal case he can help by calling 877.472.5775.