Often overlapping with false imprisonment, the intentional tort of false arrest involves someone being held against their will or taken into custody without consent or a legal justification. This can give rise to a civil claim for damages. Despite the name, many cases of false arrest arise from restraints that were imposed by store managers, security professionals, and other people outside law enforcement. It applies to any situation in which someone’s movement is restrained, rather than just in the context of a formal arrest.
Similar to other intentional torts, false arrest requires proving that the defendant’s conduct rose to a level greater than mere carelessness, or negligence. The defendant must have deliberately restrained the plaintiff. Whether or not this occurred is usually straightforward but can be contested in cases in which someone simply locked a door and may not have known that someone else was behind the door.
Consciousness and Lack of Consent
The subject of the false arrest must have been aware of the confinement. The most common case in which this may be contested is when someone is intoxicated or drugged and unaware of their surroundings. The plaintiff does not need to be aware that the arrest lacks a legal basis but only aware of the arrest itself. However, they cannot establish liability for false arrest if they consented to the arrest. People who voluntarily surrender to law enforcement officers, even if they committed no crime, cannot later sue law enforcement for false arrest.
The most complex element of a false arrest case is the question of whether there was a legal basis for the arrest, also known as a “privilege.” There are some clear cases in which an arrest resulted from a warrant or a court order, which is obviously a legal basis. Even without this type of document, however, an officer or someone like a store security guard may have probable cause to make an arrest. This means that a reasonable person in their position would have believed that the subject of the arrest was committing a crime, based on the facts known to the person making the arrest. This does not account for issues such as whether the subject of the arrest actually committed a crime or whether the person making the arrest actually believed that the subject committed a crime.
An officer can make an arrest based on a report by someone else if it would be sufficient to a reasonable person. Most often, a report by someone else will not be enough to make an arrest unless the officer finds other evidence to support it.
The Difference Between a Stop and an Arrest
There is a fine line between a stop and an arrest. Police may stop a citizen on the street if they have a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct. This is a much lower standard than probable cause, which is because the intrusion on the subject’s rights is much less severe. A stop simply involves asking for identification and possibly briefly asking questions before letting the subject continue on their way. Even though the person being stopped may feel that they cannot leave during the stop, this is not an arrest. However, a long stop involving detailed questioning may turn into an arrest that would require probable cause. If probable cause does not exist, a false arrest claim may arise.