False imprisonment is the act of restraining a person against his/her will in a bounded area without any justification. False imprisonment generally refers to the confinement of a person without the consent of such person or without legal authority. For example, if a person wrongfully prevents another from leaving a room or vehicle when that person wants to leave, it amounts to false imprisonment.

This article shall consider the basic law applicable to false imprisonment, including defenses that may apply. It should be noted that both civil action (tort) and criminal charges may result from the allegation of false imprisonment.


Definitions and Elements:

In Serra v. Lappin, 600 F.3d 1191 (9th Cir. Cal. 2010), the court stated that false imprisonment is the non-consensual, intentional confinement of a person, without lawful privilege, for an appreciable length of time, however short.

It was found in United States v. McMiller, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 8093 (3d Cir. Pa. Apr. 19, 2010), that false imprisonment under Georgia law is a crime of violence since false imprisonment involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another and therefore a Grade A violation under 18 USCS Appx § 7B1.1 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines.

Generally, false imprisonment is accompanied by force or threat of force, and a consent obtained by such force or threat of force is invalid. Some states still recognize false imprisonment as a misdemeanor at common law. False imprisonment is a common law misdemeanor and a tort. False imprisonment applies to both private and governmental detention. Few jurisdictions treat false imprisonment as kidnapping when the imprisonment is kept secret from third parties.

In Ameen v. Merck & Co., 226 Fed. Appx. 363 (5th Cir. Tex. 2007), the court stated that a detention may be accomplished by violence, by threats, or by any other means that restrains a person from moving from one place to another. When a plaintiff alleges that the detention was accomplished by a threat, the plaintiff should demonstrate that the threat was such as would inspire in the threatened person a just fear of injury to his/her reputation, person, or property.

The essential elements of false imprisonment are:

  • Willful detention;
  • Without consent; and
  • Without authority of law.

In Forgie-Buccioni v. Hannaford Bros., Inc., 413 F.3d 175 (1st Cir. N.H. 2005), the court found that under New Hampshire law, false imprisonment is the unlawful restraint of an individual’s personal freedom. When a defendant acts with the intent to restrain or confine a plaintiff within boundaries fixed by the defendant, defendant’s act directly or indirectly resulted in such restraint or confinement of the plaintiff, and the plaintiff was conscious of and harmed by the restraint or confinement, it constitutes a false imprisonment. Therefore, confinement can be imposed by physical barriers or physical force.

False Arrest vs. False Imprisonment:

Some courts often use the term “false imprisonment” and “false arrest” interchangeably. Although the two terms are virtually identical, the difference lies in the manner in which they arise. For committing false imprisonment, intent to make an arrest or even making an arrest is not necessary. However, a falsely arrested person is at the same time falsely imprisoned.

In Davis v. Clark County Bd. of Comm’ns, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123638, 8-9 (S.D. Ohio Nov. 16, 2009), the court noted that false arrest is a species of false imprisonment and therefore the two torts can be collectively referred to as “false imprisonment.” False imprisonment consists of detention without legal process. Accordingly, false imprisonment ends once the victim becomes held pursuant to any process such as when s/he is bound over by a magistrate or arraigned on charges. The damages for a false arrest and/or false imprisonment claim commence at the time of detention and come to an end upon the issuance of process or arraignment.


The Civil Tort:

False imprisonment can be committed by words, acts, or by both. Dietz v. Finlay Fine Jewelry Corp., 754 N.E.2d 958 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001). The common law tort of false imprisonment is defined as an unlawful restraint of an individual’s personal liberty or freedom of movement. In order to constitute the wrong it is not necessary that the individual be actually confined or assaulted. Whitman v. Atchison, T. & S. F. R. Co., 85 Kan. 150 (Kan. 1911).

It is to be noted that, there is no necessity in a false imprisonment case to prove that a person used physical violence or laid hands on another person. It is sufficient to show that at any time or place the person in any manner deprived another person of his/her liberty without sufficient legal authority. Pechulis v. City of Chicago, 1997 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11856 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 7, 1997).

False arrest is the unlawful violation of the personal liberty of another consisting of detention without sufficient legal authority. In order to establish a false arrest claim, the person detained must prove that the arrest is unlawful and such unlawful arrest resulted in injury. An arrest is unlawful when the police officers in question did not have probable cause to make the arrest. Landry v. Duncan, 902 So. 2d 1098 (La.App. 5 Cir. Apr. 26, 2005).

An arresting officer who fails to take the arrested person before a court or magistrate within a reasonable time or without unnecessary delay is guilty of false imprisonment. Similarly, an officer who arrests a person without a warrant is liable for false imprisonment by detaining the prisoner an unreasonable time. Dragna v. White, 45 Cal. 2d 469 (Cal. 1955).

Generally, false arrest is one of several means of committing false imprisonment. False arrest describes the setting for false imprisonment when it is committed by a peace officer or by one who claims the power to make an arrest. Thus, a tort action for false imprisonment based on false arrest against a person who is not a peace officer implies that the detention or restraint to support the tort was done by one who claims the power of arrest. Rife v. D.T. Corner, Inc., 641 N.W.2d 761 (Iowa 2002).

However, false arrest is almost indistinguishable from false imprisonment. The only distinction lies in the manner in which they arise. False arrest is merely one means of committing a false imprisonment. Whereas, false imprisonment is committed without any thought of attempting arrest. Harrer v. Montgomery Ward & Co., 124 Mont. 295 (Mont. 1950).

The principal element of damages in an action for false imprisonment is the loss of freedom. Sometimes, a court also takes into account the fear and nervousness suffered as a result of the detention. Pitts v. State, 51 Ill. Ct. Cl. 29 (Ill. Ct. Cl. 1999).The tort of false imprisonment involves an unlawful restraint on freedom of movement or personal liberty. Therefore, two essential elements to constitute false imprisonment are:

  • Detention or restraint against a person’s will,
  • Unlawfulness of the detention or restraint.

Ette v. Linn-Mar Cmty. Sch. Dist., 656 N.W.2d 62 (Iowa 2002).

Whereas, after liability is established for false arrest, the person who suffered may recover nominal damages as well as compensation for mental suffering, including fright, shame, and mortification from the indignity and disgrace, consequent upon an illegal detention. Barnes v. District of Columbia, 452 A.2d 1198 (D.C. 1982). However, in a suit for false arrest and false imprisonment, a person usually cannot recover attorney’s fees incurred or loss of earnings suffered while defending an underlying criminal action. Barnes v. District of Columbia, 452 A.2d 1198 (D.C. 1982).

The elements to be considered by the jury in awarding compensatory damages in a false imprisonment case are physical suffering, mental suffering and humiliation, loss of time and interruption of business, reasonable and necessary expenses incurred, and injury to reputation. Jenkins v. Pic-n-Pay Shoes, Inc., 1985 Tenn. LEXIS 536 (Tenn. July 15, 1985).

The measure of damages for false imprisonment is a sum that will fairly and reasonably compensate the injured person for the injuries caused by the wrongful act including any special pecuniary loss which is a direct result of the false imprisonment. Sindle v. New York City Transit Authority, 64 Misc. 2d 995 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1970). A jury can award punitive damages in a false arrest or imprisonment case, if the requisite level of malice or other requisite mental state is established.

The liability of a principal for the act of an agent in causing a false arrest or imprisonment depends upon whether the principal previously authorized the act, or subsequently ratified it, or whether the act was within the scope of the employee’s or agent’s employment. Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Steele, 23 Tenn. App. 275 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1939). However, an employer will not be held liable for false imprisonment for the actions of an employee which are outside the scope of employment.

In order to avoid liability in an action for false imprisonment, a person must establish that s/he did not imprison the other person or s/he must justify the imprisonment. The presence of probable cause for imprisonment is a defense if it constitutes reasonable grounds for acting in defense of property or making an arrest without a warrant. A person is not liable for false imprisonment, if the person restrained is a child under the age of seventeen upon certain conditions. However, contributory negligence is not considered a defense if the wrong is something more than mere negligence.

A false imprisonment action cannot be maintained if a person is properly arrested by lawful authority without a warrant. In order to justify an arrest without a warrant, the arrestor must proceed as soon as may be to make the arrest. Therefore, a private person can arrest another for a public offense committed or attempted in his/her presence.

Certain officials and professionals are exempted from civil liability for false imprisonment under certain circumstances. They are:

  • Judicial officers;
  • Government officials entrusted with judicial functions;
  • Attorneys;
  • Physicians.

A judicial officer who has jurisdiction of the person and of the subject matter is exempted from civil liability for false imprisonment so long as the judge acts within that jurisdiction and in a judicial capacity. Bahakel v. Tate, 503 So. 2d 837 (Ala. 1987). Similarly, officers in other government departments are also exempted from liability for false imprisonment whenever they are entrusted with the judicial exercise of discretionary power. Likewise, an attorney is also protected from personal liability for false imprisonment if s/he acts in good faith on behalf of his/her client. It is to be noted that physicians who give evidence in proceedings to determine sanity are also immune from liability for false imprisonment.

In the case of false imprisonment, the plaintiff has the burden of proving the false arrest. The plaintiff in a false imprisonment action must prove that the defendant proximately caused the injuries for which the plaintiff seeks damages.


Defenses to False Imprisonment:

False imprisonment is a common-law felony and a tort. To recover damages for false imprisonment, an individual must establish that:

  • the defendant intended to confine the plaintiff;
  • the plaintiff was conscious of the confinement;
  • the plaintiff did not consent to the confinement; and
  • the confinement was not otherwise privileged.

Bernard v. United States, 25 F.3d 98, 102 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1994).

A person defending an allegation of false imprisonment must challenge the above elements constituting the offense. Common defenses pleaded in an action against false imprisonment are as follows:

  • Arrest under a legal authority: It is a complete defense to a claim of false imprisonment, when the restraint or arrest is under legal authority or justification. When the defendant was exercising his/her legal rights and duties, the restraint or imprisonment is justified.
  • Voluntarily Consent to Confinement: Confinement constituting false imprisonment must be against plaintiff’s will. When a person voluntarily consents to the confinement, there can be no false imprisonment. Voluntary consent to confinement nullifies a claim of false imprisonment Hanna v. Marshall Field & Co., 279 Ill. App. 3d 784, 793 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 1996).
  • Probable Cause to Effectuate the Arrest: A determination that the confinement is privileged can be made based upon the existence of probable cause. Existence of probable cause is an absolute bar to claims for false imprisonment. Probable cause is defined as a state of facts which leads a man of ordinary caution and prudence to believe or entertain an honest and strong suspicion that the person accused is guilty of the offense charged. Burghardt v. Remiyac, 207 Ill.App.3d. 402, 565 N.E.2d 1049, 152 Ill.Dec. 367.
  • Waiver of right to complain: When a party is under arrest, any agreement or arrangement waiving any further proceedings, release and any claim for damages can be a defense for false imprisonment. The arrangement must be made fairly and intelligently. The waiver must not be procured by false representations, or by coercion Caffrey v. Drugan, 144 Mass. 294, 296 (Mass. 1887).
  • Res judicata: In an action for false imprisonment, an issue determined in a prior proceeding can be taken as res judicata. An issue once decided will prevent a second judicial determination.
  • Action under the instruction of a superior officer: It is no defense to an action for false imprisonment that the defendant who made the arrest was acting under the directions of a superior officer. However, the fact that an officer made an arrest under the direction of a superior officer is competent to be shown as affecting punitive or exemplary damages. Christ v. McDonald, 152 Ore. 494, 501-502 (Or. 1935).

Merchant Defense:

Most of the states provide an affirmative defense to merchants accused of false imprisonment. Any merchant who has reasonable ground to believe that a person has committed retail theft may detain such person for the following purposes:

  • To request identification;
  • To verify such identification;
  • To make reasonable inquiry as to whether such person has in his possession unpurchased merchandise. Moreover, the arrest is to make reasonable investigation of the ownership of such merchandise; and
  • To inform a peace officer of the detention of the person and surrender that person to the custody of a peace officer.


A person does not commit false imprisonment when the person restrained is a child under the age of seventeen and the following conditions are satisfied. The conditions are:

  • A parent, guardian or other person responsible for the general supervision of the child’s welfare has consented to the restraint; or
  • The actor is a relative of the child; and
  • The actor’s sole purpose is to assume control of the child; and
  • The child is not taken out of the state

Contributory Negligence:

Contributory negligence is not a defense, when the defendant’s wrong is something more than mere negligence, i.e., when it has the element of willful, reckless and wanton misconduct. However, one who willfully and in reckless disregard of the rights of others, by a positive act or careless omission exposes another to death or grave bodily injury is liable for the consequences, even though the other is guilty of negligence. Aiken v. Holyoke S. R. Co., 184 Mass. 269, 271 (Mass. 1903).


The Crime of False Imprisonment:

The reader should first review our article on criminal law.

False imprisonment is both a felony and a tort. Street v. State, 60 Md. App. 573 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1984). The definition of false imprisonment as a crime and as a tort are similar. Both as a crime and a tort, the general principles applied to false imprisonment are the same. The only difference being that principles applied in the criminal prosecution of false imprisonment are general laws of criminal jurisprudence.

False imprisonment often involves an element of physical force. But the presence of criminal force is not mandatory to constitute an offense of false imprisonment. A threat of force, a threat of arrest, and a belief that a person’s personal liberty will be violated are sufficient to constitute an offense of false imprisonment. People v. Grant, 8 Cal. App. 4th 1105 (Cal. App. 5th Dist. 1992).

Aiding and abetting an offense of false imprisonment is punishable. Nominal damages will be awarded to an individual who has suffered no actual damages in consequence to the illegal confinement. In cases where an injured offers proof of injuries suffered, s/he will be compensated with damages for physical injuries, mental suffering, and loss of earnings. Sometimes attorneys’ fees are also awarded as compensation. If a confinement involved malice or violence, then the plaintiff will be entitled to punitive damages. To recover damages for false imprisonment, there must be confinement for a substantial degree and the freedom of movement must be totally restrained. Punishment for false imprisonment includes fine, imprisonment, or both.

False arrest and criminal confinement have been recognized as other forms of false imprisonment. In false arrest an individual who is detained mistakenly believes that a person who had detained him/her has legal authority to conduct an arrest.

Punishments awarded for an offense of false imprisonment depend on the relevant statute and other factors connected with the crime. Usually the sentence awarded will be proportionate to the gravity of an offense. Aggravating factors as well as mitigating factors will be considered along with the sentence provided in the relevant statute.

A trial court may enhance the basic penalties; impose consecutive sentences, or both, upon consideration of relevant facts and information. However, reasons have to be recorded when a trial court increases penalties or imposes consecutive sentences. A record must show that the punishment imposed was based upon the consideration of facts of the specific crime, the aggravating and mitigating factors involved, and the relation of the sentence granted to the objectives, which will be served by that sentence. Fointno v. State, 487 N.E.2d 140, 1986 Ind. LEXIS 991.

Evidence of a defendant’s prior criminal record may be admitted to show motive in a prosecution proceeding. But the fact that a defendant surrendered his/her hostages without any injury to them may entitle him/her to a reduction in sentence. Beatty v. State, 567 N.E.2d 1134, 1991 Ind. LEXIS 37.

Lengthy sentences may be imposed in appropriate cases. A sentence authorized by a statute will not be revised by a reviewing court except in cases where it appears very unreasonable in the nature of a crime and character of an offender. While examining the nature of a crime and character of an offender, a court may look to any factor on record. The burden is on the defendant to prove that his/her sentence is improper. Rich v. State, 890 N.E.2d 44 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008).



False imprisonment is normally pled with numerous related tort allegations including assault and battery,intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. It is vital to note that the act does not require physical force or a locked room to constitute the tort. Reasonable apprehension on the part of the victim, an unlocked door which has a perceived danger on the other side, etc. etc. can all constitute sufficient elements for the tort.

We have found that most such claims arise from momentary loss of temper or emotional outbursts. Typically, a argument will result in one party standing in front of a door and acting in a threatening manner. Alternatively, in an accident scene, one of the parties may try to keep a witness remaining while the police arrive by standing in front of the car and acting angry. The different types of events are endless.

And civilly, the most common claim is that a store owner acted improperly in detaining a customer suspected of shop lifting. In that case, the merchant defense described above is a key aspect of the law to keep in mind.