False Imprisonment and Unlawful Detention

False imprisonment, also known as unlawful detention, occurs when a person is improperly restrained from leaving a location due to the improper actions of another person. In broad terms, false imprisonment occurs when one person intentionally restricts the freedom of movement of another person without their consent and without legal privilege. It is not necessary that the person be physically restrained.

When Does False Imprisonment Occur

False imprisonment may occur in many contexts. For example,

  • In a kidnapping case, the victim is unlawfully detained by the kidnapper;
  • In a robbery, where victims are threatened with violence if they attempt to get away, the victims of the robbery are unlawfully detained by the robber.
  • If a police officer arrests a person despite having no reasonable belief that the person committed a crime, the arrested person will have been falsely arrested and unlawfully detained by that police officer.
  • If a passenger in a vehicle demands that the driver stop and let the passenger out, the driver's refusal to do so may constitute false imprisonment.

Questions of false imprisonment often arise when a person is detained by a store or shopping center on suspicion of shoplifting, but where there is insufficient evidence that shoplifting actually occurred.

Elements of False Imprisonment

The basic elements of a claim of false imprisonment are that the person accused of false imprisonment:

  1. Willfully restrains another person;
  2. With intent to confine the other person;
  3. Against that person's will;
  4. Without the person's consent or legal justification; and
  5. Where the detained person is aware of the confinement.

False imprisonment may involve a person's being held in a room or bounded area, where there is no means to escape from that area, but may also occur in other contexts. For example:

  • Physical Restraint: A person may be physically prevented from leaving a defined space or bounded area, such as a room or cell, due to the use or threat of force or the use of locks or barriers, or through the use of physical restraints.
  • Misrepresentation: False imprisonment may result from misrepresentation, such as where a person is wrongly detained by another person who falsely claims to be a police officer.
  • Threat of harm: A false imprisonment claim may result from a threat of harm, including a threat of harm to others who may not be present. For example, a person might be constrained from leaving by threats to harm members of the person's family.
  • Retention of property: False imprisonment may result from the retention of certain items of property, such as a person's keys, wallet or purse, where an ordinary person would not want to abandon the property in order to get away.

An act of unlawful detention may potentially result in civil liability, criminal charges, or both.

Willful Restraint

False imprisonment results from an intentional act that restrains the freedom of movement of another person. If a person is intentionally locked in a storage room with no means of escape, the act of locking the person in the room may be an act of false imprisonment. If a person is in the back of a dark storage room at closing time, and is locked in the room by somebody who is not aware that the person is in the room, that mistake will cause the person to be detained in the room but does not constitute false imprisonment.

Against the Person's Will

If a person voluntarily agrees to be detained, without any threat, duress or coercion, then the detention of the person cannot constitute false imprisonment. However, if a person initially consents to detention and later asks to leave, a subsequent detention of that person may constitute false imprisonment.

Without Legal Justification

Not all detentions that occur against a person's will are unlawful. The most common examples relate to law enforcement work, where the police may reasonably detain people for the purpose of investigating crimes, may arrest and detain persons based upon the issuance of arrest warrants or upon probable cause that the person committed a serious crime, or where a person who has been convicted of a crime may be sentenced to a period of incarceration,

Defenses to a Claim of False Imprisonment

Not all detentions are unlawful. For example, a detention may occur as a result of lawful arrest, with the consent of the person who was detained, or by virtue of other legal authority.

Lawful Arrest

Law enforcement agencies are vested by law with the right to make arrests for certain crimes or suspected criminal activity and, with sufficient cause, to detain persons for a reasonable amount of time to investigate their possible involvement in criminal activity. As long as a law enforcement officer acts within the scope of that authority, the action of arresting or detaining a person will not support a cause of action for false imprisonment.

Even if a person is later determined not to have committed a criminal act, or is acquitted of all charges after a trial, if the initial detention was legally proper it is not possible to successfully sue a police officer for making that arrest or for the detention that followed from the arrest.

Although the elements of a false arrest are very similar to those of a claim of false imprisonment, it is possible for a false imprisonment to follow a lawful arrest. For example, even after a lawful arrest, a person might be unreasonably detained by a police agency without being formally charged, or after a prosecutor has declined to authorize charges or a court has dismissed all charges against the person.


A person accuse of falsely imprisoning another person may respond that the accuser was not detained, and that the accuser gave express or implied consent to the detention or confinement. To be effective as a defense, consent must be voluntarily given and not obtained as a result of fraud, duress or coercion.

If voluntary consent is proved, an unlawful detention case will not succeed.

Citizen's Arrest

Under common law, upon witnessing a felony offense, it is legal for a person to make a citizen's arrest of the person who committed the felony offense. The conditions under which a citizen's arrest may be permissible vary by state, so it is important to understand state law before attempting a citizen's arrest. It's also important to understand the nature of the alleged offense as, under the common law rule, making a citizen's arrest for a crime that turns out to be a misdemeanor could leave the person who made the arrest liable for false imprisonment.

Shopkeeper's Privilege

Retailers have long faced problems with shoplifting and other forms of retail theft, and in many states a common law rule developed that permitted merchants to detain shoplifters for any act of theft, even if the theft would only be charged as a misdemeanor or other petty offense. The basic elements of shopkeeper's privilege are:

  • The merchant, or agent of the merchant, must have reasonable grounds to believe that an act of theft occurred and that the act was committed by the detained person;
  • The detention must occur on the merchant's premises, or within reasonable proximity to the premises (e.g., the sidewalk outside of the store's door or the store's parking lot);
  • The amount of force used to detain the suspect is reasonable under the circumstances; and
  • The detention lasts no longer than reasonably necessary to complete an investigation and, if the merchant concludes that a crime occurred, to summon the police.

As long as the detention satisfies the legal requirements to invoke the privilege, shopkeeper's privilege is an absolute defense to a claim of false imprisonment or unlawful detention. However, even if a person engaged in shoplifting, or even where the length of the detention is increased by slow police response time, the merchant will be liable for any use of excessive force or for detention for a period of time that is not reasonable under the circumstances.

In recent decades, states have passed statutes that codify the shopkeeper's privilege, and often extend the privilege to libraries in relation to the theft of or damage to books and other library property. The elements of the privilege are largely similar, but important aspects of the law can vary by state.

Parental Authority

While parents may not confine their children for an unlawful purpose, in a manner that is dangerous to a child, or with the intent to cause harm, parents have broad general authority over the movements of their minor children.

False Imprisonment vs. Kidnapping

Although the crimes are in many ways similar, there is a key distinction between kidnapping and false imprisonment: whether or not the defendant was moved to another location.

  • In a false imprisonment case, the victim is wrongly detained or imprisoned at a location where the victim was previously voluntarily present.
  • In a kidnapping case, the victim is captured or wrongly detained at one location, then transported to another location for continued detention.

A false imprisonment case can potentially turn into a kidnapping case even if the victim is transported only a short distance, such as from one room in a building to another.

Copyright © 2017 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.