Like other intentional torts, such as assault and battery, false imprisonment often can result in criminal as well as civil liability. It happens when someone intentionally restricts someone else’s freedom of movement. This is a higher level of mental state than what is required in most personal injury claims, which are based on negligent (or careless) conduct. To prove liability, a plaintiff must show four main elements. The defendant must have used an unlawful restraint, the restraint must have been against the will of the plaintiff, the restraint must have lacked legal justification, and the plaintiff must have suffered injuries or other quantifiable harm as a result.
Restraint can be physical or a legitimate threat of force.
The most obvious type of restraint is the use of force. If a bouncer at a nightclub takes you to an internal room in the club and locks you in it, this clearly meets the unlawful restraint element. However, even if you are not locked in a room, handcuffed, or otherwise physically restrained, you can still meet this element by showing that the defendant implied a threat of force. Even if you could have physically left the premises, the bouncer might have warned you that they would use force against you if you tried to leave. This would amount to the same thing as locking you in the room.
Restrained Against Your Will
In deciding whether the restraint was against the alleged victim’s will, the jury will use a reasonable person standard. This is objective rather than subjective and will depend on the specific circumstances. To continue the example above, if a bouncer locks or stands outside one door to the room, but there is another door to the room that is unlocked and unguarded, you could have left through that door. Your decision to stay thus would not have been against your will, unless you had been threatened with the use of force if you left. This type of issue also arises when suspects turn themselves in to the police and then are detained while the crime is being investigated. Even if they are cleared of any wrongdoing, they cannot hold law enforcement liable for false imprisonment during that detention.
In addition to consent, there are other legitimate reasons why someone may be detained. For example, law enforcement has a right to detain a suspect after making a lawful arrest. In some cases, a store may be able to detain a customer based on a reasonable suspicion of shoplifting, although the detention must be limited to a reasonable length of time and meet other requirements.
Justifications or Defenses to False Imprisonment
Legal justifications for detention may include:
False Imprisonment as a Crime
False imprisonment generally is charged as a misdemeanor in the states where it is a crime. It may be charged as kidnapping, which is a felony, in some extreme cases in which the victim was moved a certain distance during their detention or was held in detention for a long time. You should be aware that double jeopardy does not apply between the criminal and civil systems. If a criminal case does not result in a conviction or a guilty plea, you may be able to establish civil liability based on the same evidence. This is because of the lower standard of proof in civil cases, as well as the less stringent way in which the elements of the case are defined.