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What is false imprisonment?

UPDATED: February 20, 2013

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False imprisonment is defined in most states as the intentional confinement of a person without legal authority or the person's consent. To be convicted of false imprisonment, a prosecutor must generally show that the individual intended to confine the victim within certain boundaries; the victim did not give consent to be confined; and these intended boundaries actually confined the plaintiff unlawfully. Depending on the state, and the facts particular to a case, false imprisonment can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or prosecuted as a felony. In addition to prosecuting false imprisonment as a crime, the victim in a false imprisonment case can also file a claim in civil court for damages. 

False Imprisonment Charges

To be convicted of a false imprisonment offense, the individual must intend to confine the other individual. Take for example if a person locks up a room from the outside, not knowing that another person is within the room and unable to leave as a result. Because the person who locked the room did not know that there was another individual within the room, they could not have intended to confine the individual, and have not committed the crime of false imprisonment. However, even if the person did not realize he was confining another at the time, if he later learns of the confinement, and does not allow the person to leave, then he has committed a false imprisonment.

To falsely imprison another individual, the person accused of imprisoning must have confined an individual by imposing boundaries upon them. However, physical boundaries are not necessary to prove a false imprisonment case. An individual can accomplish false imprisonment through duress, force, or threat of force, and any consent obtained from a victim by coercion or threat is not considered valid. For example, suppose that an individual went into a convenience store, waived a gun around, and told everyone not to move. Even though the people within the convenience store are not physically restrained from leaving the store, the robber’s threat on its own will likely be enough of a “boundary” to constitute false imprisonment.  

Also, the imposed boundaries must actually confine the individual to be a false imprisonment. This means that if a person barricades two doors to a room with an individual inside, but the third door remains open and would allow the individual to escape, the individual has not been falsely imprisoned.

The crime of false imprisonment also requires that the confinement be unlawful. Almost any situation in which one civilian imprisons another is an unlawful confinement. Cases where the confinement is lawful are found when law enforcement officer make a legal arrest. However, if an individual pretends he has the legal authority to make an arrest in order to confine another individual, this is generally deemed an unlawful confinement.

If an individual is detained in a jail or prison, they may also seek redress through a writ of habeas corpus. A writ of habeas corpus is a legal brief filed with a court, which alleges that the individual is being held within the prison unlawfully.


There are several ways to defend against a charge of false imprisonment. If an individual can show that the confinement was in good faith, i.e. for the protection of the individual being confined, the charge of false imprisonment generally will not be sustained. Other defenses include consent by the person allegedly confined, lack of evidence of confinement, authorized confinement, merchant confinement, and parental authority.

The defense of authorized confinement to a false imprisonment claim is when a legal arrest has been made. As stated above, a legal arrest is generally one made by a peace officer, and is based on probable cause or a warrant. Some states also allow a “citizen's arrest” to be made under limited circumstances. A citizen's arrest is when one or more civilians “arrest” another civilian. If the individual charged with false imprisonment is found to have been exercising his or her legal duty to arrest an individual that they reasonably believed had been involved in a crime, this is a complete defense to a charge of false imprisonment.

Many states also allow a merchants confinement as a defense to a false imprisonment charge. The merchant’s exception allows a store employee to detain a person for a reasonable amount of time if they suspect the person has shoplifted from the store. However, like a lawful arrest, the store employee must also have probable cause to detain the suspect. In most states that allow this defense, this means that the store employee must have witnessed the individual shoplift, and also must have witnessed the individual fail to pay for the item shoplifted. Further, the store employee must wait until the suspected shoplifter leaves the premises to apprehend them.

Finally, in some cases, parental authority may be a defense to a false imprisonment charge. This means that a parent may confine their child, as long as it is not meant to harm them. However, if the parent confines their child for an unlawful purpose, or the confinement puts the child’s health or safety in danger, then the parent may not use the defense of parental authority.

Consequences of False Imprisonment Charges

In most states, the level of threat or violence used when containing an individual to certain boundaries can raise the charge of false imprisonment from a misdemeanor to a felony. For example, if a mere threat without anything more is used to confine an individual, this may be charged as a misdemeanor. However, if it is later discovered that the threat was accompanied by a weapon, this could raise the level of the charge to a felony. In some states false imprisonment is always prosecuted as a felony. The consequences of such a conviction, in addition to possible lengthy prison sentences, may include future difficulty finding employment, loss or inability to acquire professional licenses, and other issues.

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