False Imprisonment: A Civil Wrong That’s Also a Crime

False Imprisonment

When you think of false imprisonment, you likely think about a law enforcement officer illegally arresting you and taking you to jail. While this is one example of false imprisonment, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. By definition, false imprisonment consists of holding someone against their will. The perpetrator can be anyone, not just a law enforcement officer. The victim likewise can be anyone, not just someone suspected of committing or having committed a crime.

False imprisonment is both a civil tort, i.e., civil wrong, and a crime. In a civil court, the plaintiff must demonstrate the following:

  1. That someone willfully restrained, detained or confined him or her
  2. Without his or her consent
  3. That the detention was unlawful

In a criminal prosecution, the prosecutor must prove the same things. The only real differences between the civil suit and the criminal prosecution are the burden of proof and the penalties.

In a civil false imprisonment suit, the plaintiff needs to prove his or her case by a preponderance (greater than a 50% chance of accuracy) of the evidence. In a criminal false imprisonment prosecution, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed this crime. When a plaintiff wins a false imprisonment civil suit, the defendant must pay him or her money to compensate for the economic and noneconomic damages he or she sustained. When a defendant is convicted of false imprisonment in a criminal prosecution, he or she faces a prison sentence, payment of a fine, and possibly having to pay restitution to his or her victim.

Use of Force

Many false imprisonment situations include the perpetrator using force against the victim. Although, the use of force is not an element of false imprisonment, either civilly or criminally. The threat of injury to the victim is sufficient if he or she feels threatened. Nor must the threat be of immediate harm or even to the victim. A threat to harm the victim’s family in the future unless they comply with the perpetrator’s false imprisonment is sufficient.

False Imprisonment Examples

Examples of false imprisonment include the following:

  • A bank robber with a gun screams at customers to lie on the floor or they will shoot them
  • A husband grabs his wife by her shoulders during an argument, thus preventing her from leaving the room
  • A law enforcement officer places a suspect in handcuffs without an arrest warrant and where the officer has no reasonable suspicion that the suspect will harm them unless so restrained
  • Someone locks someone else in a room absent their consent
  • A store security guard detains a suspected shoplifter for an unreasonable length of time
  • An employer suspects an employee of theft or other illegal activity and detains them for an unreasonable length of time
  • A driver automatically locks their vehicle’s doors with the intent of preventing the passengers from being able to get out
  • Someone blocks the only exit from a room so that the other person cannot leave when they want to

Examples of What’s Not False Imprisonment

Examples of situations that do not rise to the level of false imprisonment include the following:

  • A law enforcement officer legally arrests you and takes you to jail. However, you’re later acquitted of the crime with which you were charged
  • A store owner or one of his or her employees or security guards sees you concealing something in your pocket or purse, hustles you into a back room and questions you for a reasonable amount of time
  • Someone grabs your arm and tells you to stay where you are. You know you can squirm out of their grasp and they will not retaliate against you if and when you do
  • Someone closes or even locks a home’s front door and tells you not to leave. However, you know you can exit through an unlocked side or back door

Filing a Civil False Imprisonment Lawsuit

You have the right to sue anyone, including a law enforcement officer, who falsely imprisons you. Generally, false imprisonment lawsuits represent a species of personal injury lawsuits. If you sue a law enforcement officer, however, you have the option of filing a Section 1983 suit against him or her.

Section 1983 suits get their name from the federal statute from which they derive, i.e., Title 42 of the U.S. Code, Section 1983. In these types of suits, you are alleging that a law enforcement or other government official violated your constitutionally-protected civil rights “under color of law.”

“Under color of law” is a legal term of art that refers to an act that has the appearance, pretense or semblance of a legal right, but that in actuality runs afoul of the law. For example, a law enforcement officer arrests you without having probable cause or a valid warrant to do so.

False Imprisonment Defenses

If someone accuses you, either civilly or criminally, of falsely imprisoning someone, you have several defenses available to you, such as the person’s voluntary consent to the confinement; your shopkeeper’s privilege; your police privilege, or your right to make a citizen’s arrest under appropriate circumstances.

Why You Need a Lawyer

Whether you are someone who believes yourself to have been the victim of false imprisonment or someone who has been accused of committing false imprisonment in either a civil or criminal court, you need an experienced attorney who will aggressively advocate for you.

Naturally, the type of attorney you need depends on the specific situation you find yourself in and the type of legal representation you require because of it. If you desire to file a false imprisonment lawsuit, you likely should consult a personal injury attorney. If you wish to file a Section 1983 lawsuit, you probably should consult with a civil rights attorney. Or, if you face criminal false imprisonment charges, consider speaking with a criminal defense attorney instead.

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