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What Is False Imprisonment?

June 23, 2020 Federal Criminal Attorneys

The widely used term “false imprisonment” refers to multiple legal concepts. “False imprisonment” refers to both a crime and to a civil wrong known as a tort.

Each state has enacted a set of criminal statutes that includes a prohibition against false imprisonment, although not every state uses that specific name for the crime. The precise elements of false imprisonment (meaning the specific facts that the prosecution must prove to allow a jury to find a criminal defendant guilty of false imprisonment) differ from state to state. Generally criminal false imprisonment occurs when one person purposefully or knowingly acts without legal authority (using force, threat, or deception) to substantially or significantly restrain another person’s liberty. “Purposefully” refers to an intention to substantially restrain another person’s liberty and “knowingly” refers to a person’s knowledge that substantial restraint of another person’s liberty will almost certainly result if he or she acts in a certain way.

False imprisonment is a felony in some cases and a misdemeanor in others. The differences between a felony and a misdemeanor involve severity of penalties and ease of expungement. Generally felonies involve longer jail terms and larger fines than misdemeanors. Additionally, while rules governing expungement, which is the process of having arrests and convictions removed from a person’s criminal record, differ from state to state, it is generally easier to have a misdemeanor conviction expunged than it is to have a felony conviction expunged, and the waiting period for expungement of a misdemeanor conviction is typically shorter than the waiting period for expungement of a felony conviction is.

In most states false imprisonment is also a tort, which means that a person who is subject to false imprisonment may recover damages in a civil lawsuit against the person who falsely imprisoned him or her. If someone commits false imprisonment while acting on behalf of his or her employer (for example, a store security guard who improperly detains a suspected shoplifter or a bus driver who refuses to let an unruly passenger disembark), then the employer may also be liable for the victim’s damages.

The precise definition of false imprisonment as a tort differs from state to state. Generally it involves an unlawful restraint by one person of a second person’s liberty against the second person’s will. How long the unlawful restraint lasted, how it was accomplished, and how it affected the victim are among the factors that will determine the amount of damages that the victim is entitled to recover in a civil lawsuit. While criminal false imprisonment generally requires a substantial deprivation of, or interference with, the victim’s liberty, a person can be civilly liable for damages caused by false imprisonment for minimal deprivation of, or interference with, another person’s liberty.

Unlawful restraint of a person’s liberty can occur in many different ways, including, but not limited to:

* locking someone in a room or vehicle;
* physically restraining someone from moving or leaving a location;
* brandishing a weapon in a threatening way that deters someone from moving or leaving a location; and
* verbally threatening someone that if he or she moves or tries to leave, then he or she will be subjected to bodily harm or other consequences.

Defenses to criminal charges and civil lawsuits for false imprisonment also vary from state to state, but there are a few generally applicable rules. The restraint must be purposeful or knowing; a person who recklessly, negligently, or accidentally restrains or interferes with another person’s liberty generally will not be criminally or civilly liable for false imprisonment. Additionally, if a person has the legal and mental capacity to consent to being restrained, then there is no liability for false imprisonment as a result of the restraint of that person’s liberty; different jurisdictions have different rules governing when a person cannot give consent due to age, mental disability, intoxication, or other reasons.

The elements and consequences of false imprisonment, both as a crime and a civil wrong, vary from state to state. If you believe that you may have been the victim of false imprisonment, then you should contact an attorney who is licensed to practice law in your state for advice about how to proceed to protect your interests.

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