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What Is ‘False Imprisonment’ under Tort Law and Some of Its Defenses?


Video Transcript

“0:00 What is false imprisonment under tort

0:02 law? A false imprisonment is defined as a

0:06 direct restraint on someone’s free

0:07 movement. It can be done with words it

0:11 can be done with threats but basically

0:13 it’s a situation where the person can

0:16 find has no reasonable means of escape.”

On November 17, 2022, police charged a woman with false imprisonment after an 18-year-old girl escaped her room, alerting the neighbors for help. Let’s explore what false imprisonment is with Ehline Law and our personal injury attorneys.

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What Is ‘False Imprisonment’ under Tort Law?

Under tort law, false imprisonment refers to a person, without legal authority, restraining another individual to a confined space without any justification, restricting the victim from exercising their freedom. For example, if a person wrongfully stops another person from leaving a room, it could fall under false imprisonment as they are violating their personal liberty.

False imprisonment and false arrest are similar; false arrest is when police officers arrest another individual without legal authority. If a police officer arrests an individual without a warrant or probable cause, the victim can have a legal case against the officer.

False imprisonment, or unlawful confinement, can lead to punishments under both civil and criminal law. Under a few jurisdictions, false imprisonment is also treated as kidnapping.

Elements of False Imprisonment

The plaintiff must prove the following elements of false imprisonment if they’re bringing a claim against the perpetrator:

  • There was wilful detention
  • The plaintiff did not consent to the detention
  • The detention was unlawful.

There are many forms of false imprisonment, and it does not necessarily have to include physical force. For example, a person can falsely imprison another by imposing physical barricades or unreasonable duress.

If a plaintiff claims false imprisonment, they must reasonably believe that the defendant confined them, as the court will determine false imprisonment by deciding what a reasonable person would do under similar circumstances.

The following examples don’t constitute false imprisonment:

  • A person holding onto your arm
  • A store owner holding you into custody for some time based on probable cause
  • A person who shuts the main door of the house but you know there are other exit doors.

Defenses under Tort of False Imprisonment

Here are some of the defenses under tort law to false imprisonment claims. In all the defenses mentioned below, the defendant must provide legal justification for imprisoning or arresting an individual.

Voluntary Consent

An individual who consents to restraint cannot claim false imprisonment. In the case of Robinson vs. Balmain New Ferry Company Ltd, the plaintiff had to take a ferry, but they had to pay a penny to use a turnstile managed by the defendant. The plaintiff paid a penny, went across the turnstile, and waited for the ferry. 

After waiting, they decided to change their mind and go back through the turnstile for which the defendant asked for a penny. The plaintiff sued the defendant claiming false imprisonment, but the court dismissed the claim stating that the plaintiff imprisoned themselves voluntarily.

Probable Cause

A shopkeeper can detain patrons if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that the person committed theft. The shopkeeper can request identification, ask questions, or hold the patron in custody until an officer arrives under reasonable suspicion of theft.

Police have the right to detain someone if they have probable cause to believe that the person carried out a wrongful act. The police can arrest someone based on reliable facts, whether or not the person has committed a crime at that point.

Statutory Authority

In the case of Austin v. Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, police arrested certain people protesting in London, which included two people who were not part of the protest. 

They sued for false imprisonment, but the court ruled that it was an exceptional situation and that the police had the authority to take such steps to maintain law and order.

Citizen’s Arrest

Although a citizen cannot make an arrest, they can detain a person in certain situations, including when they witness a crime.

Is There a Difference Between False Imprisonment and Kidnapping?

The legal definition of the two might be similar in certain states, which may cause confusion on whether the two are the same.

Kidnapping involves:

  • Abducting an individual;
  • Taking them to a secondary location; and
  • Holding them there against their will.

It could involve using force, violating civil rights, and moving across the state. Moving to a new location could put the victim at a higher risk of danger or reduce the risk of the perpetrator getting caught.

False imprisonment is a lesser criminal act and lacks malicious or criminal intent present in a kidnapping. Secondly, false imprisonment is holding someone in one place, while kidnapping involves taking the victim to a secondary location.

The two can often meet in certain crimes. Suppose a person picks up someone on the sidewalk by forcefully pushing them into their car, takes them to their home, and locks them in their basement. In this case, the person would be guilty of kidnapping and false imprisonment.

Remedies for False imprisonment

The following are specific remedies provided by the court in a false imprisonment claim:

  • The mere unlawful detention constitutes a nominal damage award, but in some cases, it may not be sufficient. An innocent person under unlawful restraint can claim compensatory damages, including pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of earnings, and other damages. Damages for false imprisonment by an officer may be measured up to the time of indictment.
  • The court may award punitive or exemplary damages if serious malice, extortion, and recklessness are behind a person’s imprisonment or where the state misuses its powers.
  • The court may issue a writ to immediately release the falsely imprisoned victim if they’re in jail or custody. Such writs are often common when police may hold a person for too long in their custody, deeming it an unlawful detention.
  • Victims under false imprisonment may use self-defense to flee the imprisonment by exacting the same amount of force proportional to the conditions.

Schedule a Free Consultation with Ehline Law

If you suffered damages due to false imprisonment, contact us at (833) LETS-SUE for a free consultation, as you may be eligible for compensation.

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