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The illegal confinement of one individual against his or her will by another individual in such a manner as to violate the confined individual's right to be free from restraint of movement.
To recover damages for false imprisonment, an individual must be confined to a substantial degree, with her or his freedom of movement totally restrained. Interfering with or obstructing an individual's freedom to go where she or he wishes does not constitute false imprisonment. For example, if Bob enters a room, and Anne prevents him from leaving through one exit but does not prevent him from leaving the way he came in, Bob has not been falsely imprisoned. An accidental or inadvertent confinement, such as when someone is mistakenly locked in a room, also does not constitute false imprisonment; the individual who caused the confinement must have intended the restraint.
False imprisonment often involves the use of physical force, but such force is not required. The threat of force or arrest, or a belief on the part of the person being restrained that force will be used, is sufficient. The restraint can also be imposed by physical barriers or through unreasonable duress imposed on the person being restrained. For example, suppose a shopper is in a room with a security guard, who is questioning her about items she may have taken from the store. If the guard makes statements leading the shopper to believe that she could face arrest if she attempts to leave, the shopper may have a reasonable belief that she is being restrained from leaving, even if no actual force or physical barriers are being used to restrain her. The shopper, depending on the other facts of the case, may therefore have a claim for false imprisonment. False imprisonment has thus sometimes been found in situations where a storekeeper detained an individual to investigate whether the individual shoplifted merchandise. Owing to increasing concerns over shoplifting, many states have adopted laws that allow store personnel to detain a customer suspected of shoplifting for the purpose of investigating the situation. California law, for example, provides that "[a] merchant may detain a person for a reasonable time for the purpose of conducting an investigation … whenever the merchant has probable cause to believe the person … is attempting to unlawfully take or has unlawfully taken merchandise" (Cal. Penal Code § 490.5 [West 1996]).
False arrest is a type of false imprisonment in which the individual being held mistakenly believes that the individual restraining him or her possesses the legal authority to do so. A law enforcement officer will not be liable for false arrest where he or she has probable cause for an arrest. The arresting officer bears the burden of showing that his or her actions were supported by probable cause. Probable cause exists when the facts and the circumstances known by the officer at the time of arrest lead the officer to reasonably believe that a crime has been committed and that the person arrested committed the crime. Thus, suppose that a police officer has learned that a man in his forties with a red beard and a baseball cap has stolen a car. The officer sees a man matching this description on the street and detains him for questioning about the theft. The officer will not be liable for false arrest, even if it is later determined that the man she stopped did not steal the car, since she had probable cause to detain him.
An individual alleging false imprisonment may sue for damages for the interference with her or his right to move freely. An individual who has suffered no actual damages as a result of an illegal confinement may be awarded nominal damages in recognition of the invasion of rights caused by the defendant's wrongful conduct. A plaintiff who has suffered injuries and can offer proof of them can be compensated for physical injuries, mental suffering, loss of earnings, and attorneys' fees. If the confinement involved malice or extreme or needless violence, a plaintiff may also be awarded punitive damages.
An individual whose conduct constitutes the tort of false imprisonment might also be charged with committing the crime of kidnapping, since the same pattern of conduct may provide grounds for both. However, kidnapping may require that other facts be shown, such as the removal of the victim from one place to another.
False imprisonment may constitute a criminal offense in most jurisdictions, with the law providing that a fine or imprisonment, or both, be imposed upon conviction. As reported by the Philadelphia Criminal Law Blog, one individual was arrested for after duct-taping her daughter to a chair and charged with false imprisonment, amongst other charges.
Bedau, Hugo Adam. 2002. "Causes and Consequences of Wrongful Convictions: An Essay-Review." Judicature 86 (September-October): 115–20.
Hare, Jamie. 1997. The Fight for Innocence. Portsmouth, Va. P.O. Box 3492, Portsmouth 23701-0492).
Scheck, Barry C., and Peter J. Neufeld. 2002. "Toward the Formation of 'Innocence Commissions' in America." Judicature 86 (September-October): 98–105.