In a nutshell, false imprisonment occurs when someone (who we'll call Person A) is detained unwillingly by another person (Person B). What's more, Person B must:
- intend to detain the plaintiff and
- do so without lawful authority.
False arrest is a form of false imprisonment, but it has unique elements (learn more in our article What is False Arrest?). A false arrest claim will typically involve a legal authority, while false imprisonment can be committed by anyone, regardless of whether the imprisonment was preceded by an arrest.
Let's take a closer look at the elements of a false imprisonment claim, which can form the basis of an intentional tort personal injury case.
For a plaintiff to be unwillingly detained, she must be confined to a particular area and must not be permitted to leave. The area can be as small as a chair or as large as a geographic area, for example a warrant that prevents her from leaving the country. A detention does not occur when someone is prevented from entering a particular area.
The detention must involve either actual force or the threat of the use of force. Locking someone in a jail, in a closet, tying them to a chair or holding their arm and not letting go are obvious uses of force, but anything that makes it impossible for someone to voluntarily leave an area will qualify.
A threat of force will also create a detention if the threat would make a reasonable person believe they would be hurt in some way if they attempted to leave the area. This includes being tricked, for example being threatened with a toy gun -- the key is that any reasonable person would believe they had no choice.
The harm threatened doesn’t necessarily need to be bodily; a believable threat to property or the plaintiff's reputation will also suffice. Note that the threat does not need to be about immediate consequences, but it generally must be in the near-future.
The person detained cannot have an easy means of escape that he knows will avoid the threatened harm. If there is such a means and the person does not use it, the detention is considered voluntary and the defendant will not be held liable for false imprisonment.
For example, if someone is stopped by a store employee, but is not told to stay in the store and is not otherwise prevented from leaving, no imprisonment occurs even if the “detained” person thinks that she is required to stay.
Things like apprehension of a public struggle or a reasonable belief that someone is a cop or other authority are sufficient to eliminate the possibility of easy escape.
Defendant Intended to Detain the Plaintiff
It is not enough that a defendant accidentally or negligently created the conditions that confined the plaintiff, for example locking a closet door not knowing someone was inside. However, false imprisonment does occur if the defendant intends to confine one person, but mistakenly confines another.
Detention was Unlawful
In the majority of cases, whether the detention was lawful hinges on whether the arrest was lawful. Even if an arrest was lawful, keeping the plaintiff in custody after she is found not guilty -- or keeping her in custody longer than her sentence allows -- will create grounds for false imprisonment.
The issue of whether a detention was lawful also arises in the context of shoplifters. Most states have statutes that dictate under what circumstances and for how long a store owner can detain a suspected shoplifter.
Generally, the store owner must have “probable cause” to believe that the person who is being detained has actually stolen something. Without probable cause, the detention is unlawful and the store owner has committed false imprisonment, as long as the other elements are satisfied (no easy escape, etc.). Even if probable cause does exist, if the store owner detains the plaintiff for too long or in an unreasonable or excessive manner, he will still be liable for false imprisonment.
Depending on the state, whether there was probable cause is decided by the judge or the jury (or both). Some states have statutes that dictate how long the store owner can detain a suspected shop-lifter. For those states without statutes (which is the majority) the general rule is that the duration and manner of the detention cannot be unreasonable under the specific circumstances of the case.