False Imprisonment

False imprisonment is a legal term that refers to the restraining of a person without legal authority or justification. In simple terms, false imprisonment can apply to any act in which a person intentionally restricts another person’s freedom to move or to leave without consent. This can occur in a building, on the streets, in a vehicle, or any other place, in which a person is restrained, against his will, from moving, whether physically or by intimidation. To explore this concept, consider the following false imprisonment definition.

Definition of False Imprisonment


  1. The unlawful confinement or restraint of a person without legal authority or justification.


1760-1770       English Law

What is False Imprisonment

False imprisonment is the restraining of a person against his will, and is considered a crime. When a person intentionally restricts the freedom of another person, me can be found liable for false imprisonment in both civil and criminal courts. While force may be used in the restraint of anther person, this element is not required for the act to be considered a crime.

There are many instances when a person claims that law enforcement engaged in false imprisonment. According to U.S. law, law enforcement officials have the right to detain an individual if they have probable cause to believe the person committed, or is involved in the commission of, a crime.

Acts Considered False Imprisonment

  • Locking a person in a room without his consent
  • Taking hostages during a robbery
  • Holding something of great value to a person, with the intent of coercing him to stay in a certain place
  • Physically detaining a person, preventing him from leaving
  • Detaining an employee for an unreasonable amount of time based on suspected theft (except in cases of “shopkeeper’s privilege”)
  • Medicating someone without his consent, in order to restrain him

Acts Not Considered False Imprisonment

  • Grabbing a person’s clothing or arm in a manner which allows the victim to free himself without fear
  • A storekeeper or shop owner detaining a customer, for a reasonable amount of time, for questioning based on probable cause that he took merchandise without paying for it
  • Asking a person not to leave, but allowing him the opportunity to leave through an open door

Elements of False Imprisonment

All states have false imprisonment laws designed to protect people from being confined against their will. The laws of each state vary, but in general, certain elements of false imprisonment must be present to prove a legal claim. If one or more of the elements of false imprisonment are missing, the case may be dismissed in court. These elements include:

Willful Detention

The detention or restraint must have been willful, or intentional. Accidentally locking the door when someone is on the other side does not constitution false imprisonment or willful detention. Willful detention applies to any form of intentional restraint, including physically preventing the person from leaving, locking them in a building, room or other location, and preventing him from leaving through force or intimidation.

Detention Without the Person’s Consent

The person making a false imprisonment claim must have believed he was being confined based on the acts of another. The court will consider the specific circumstances of the incident whether another reasonable person, under similar circumstances, would believe he was being confined, in order to determine whether the victim’s belief was reasonable.

Unlawful Detention

The detention of another person must have been unlawful. In other words, the individual doing the detaining must not have legal justification to do so. Such legal justification applies to shopkeepers detaining suspected shoplifters, and other situations.

False Imprisonment vs. Kidnapping

False imprisonment is the restraining of a person against his will without transporting him to another location. This illegal confinement violates an individual’s right to be free from restraint, and may give the victim a claim in civil court, in addition to any criminal charges which may apply. In general, false imprisonment falls under the category of a misdemeanor unless force is used, in which case it may be a felony.

Kidnapping takes place when a person without legal authority moves another person without his consent, with the intent of using the abduction of the individual for some other objective. What differentiates kidnapping from false imprisonment is the element of moving or transporting the victim.

False imprisonment involves only restraint of a person, not allowing him to leave. Kidnapping involves capturing or detaining a person, then moving them or transporting them for some other purpose. This purpose might include the demand of a ransom, coercion for political purposes, or other types of criminal activities. Kidnapping is a criminal act that is considered a felony, the circumstances of which may classify it as a first or second-degree felony.

For example:

Neal is having a great time at a frat party when Lisa decides she is drunk enough and wants to leave. Neal grabs her arm and keeps her in the room while someone else shuts and locks the door. Neal thinks it’s a great prank, and doesn’t do anything else to Lisa, though she was scared and unable to leave for several hours. Neal and his friend have committed false imprisonment, as they physically detained Lisa, and she legitimately believed she could not leave.

A couple of weeks later, Neal and his friend are hanging out at the club, buying girls drinks for several hours. Neal walks out of the club with Amanda thinking she intended to go back to his dorm room. When she tries to beg off, he becomes irritated and grabs her arm, shoving her into his car and locking the door with his remote. Amanda makes such a fuss that, a couple of blocks down the road, Neal stops and lets her out of the car. Because Neal actually moved Amanda, forcing her into the car, and then transporting her down the road, he has committed a kidnapping.

In many states, the simple act of moving a person from one point to another, even if that is simple shoving him over a couple of feet to stand in another place, especially during the commission of another crime, it may be considered kidnapping.

Defenses to False Imprisonment

The most common defense to false imprisonment is the lack of one or more of the elements required. For instance, if the victim agreed to the confinement, false imprisonment did not occur. However, there are other defenses that can be used in defending a claim of false imprisonment. These include:

  • Valid Arrest – Claims of false arrest are not valid if the individual was detained due to a valid arrest by law enforcement, if they have probable cause to believe the individual committed a crime, or is engaged in wrongdoing. Additionally, an individual may lawfully be detained in a citizen’s arrest.
  • Shopkeeper’s Privilege – A shopkeeper can lawfully detain a person who they reasonably suspect of shoplifting. The owner or employee of the establishment must have probable cause however, before they can detain a person. Some states require the shopkeepers to have actually witnessed the crime in progress.
  • Consent to be Restrained – A person who has consented to be restrained or confined, without the presence of fraud, coercion, or duress, cannot later claim to be the victim of false imprisonment.

False Imprisonment Penalties

False imprisonment penalties vary by jurisdiction, as well as by the specific circumstances of the crime. A person who commits false imprisonment not only faces criminal charges, but can be sued in civil court by the victim. When a civil lawsuit is filed, the victim asks the court to award him damages for injuries or emotional suffering caused by the act. If the court agrees with the plaintiff, the defendant can be ordered to pay monetary damages to the victim.

In criminal court, the prosecutor will attempt to prove the crime took place. While physical force, or the threat of force, are not required elements for criminal false imprisonment, these elements raise the level of the crime substantially, and subjects the perpetrator to more severe penalties.

The crime of false imprisonment may be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances of the act. While a misdemeanor conviction is likely to result in probation, fines, and possibly jail time, a felony conviction holds much stiffer penalties, including prison time. Just how much prison time depends on whether violence was involved in the confinement, and whether the individual restrained was a child or other protected individual, such as an elderly or disabled person. Such a prison sentence may range from 1 to 20 years.

False Imprisonment in Cult Deprogramming

In 1980, 21-year old Susan Jungclaus Peterson was a student at Moorhead State College. At some point during the year, Susan met members of a cult called The Way of Minnesota, and voluntarily joined the cult. The cult required every member to solicit on behalf of the sect, and give 10% of those monies to the organization.

After seeing Susan’s grades, appearance, and behavior decline, her father, Norman Jungclaus took her to a cult deprogrammer named Kathy Mills. Susan stayed in the home of an individual named Morgel during her deprogramming period with Mills. At first, Susan’s treatment seemed to be successful, but she then left and returned to the group and her fiancé.

Susan later filed a lawsuit against her father and the deprogrammers for false imprisonment and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Even though the defendants showed the court that Susan had stayed in the program voluntarily, having had ample opportunity to leave on voluntary basis, the jury ruled in her favor. Both Mills and Morgel were found liable for the infliction of emotional distress, but the plaintiff was awarded only $1.00 from each of these defendants. Punitive damages from these defendants was awarded at $4,000 and $6,000 respectively. The jury ruled against the claims of false imprisonment.

In addition, a directed verdict was ordered by the court in favor of Susan’s parents and her former minister. Susan appealed all of the jury’s decisions.

The issue brought to the appellate court was whether the reasonable acts of parents to protect an adult child from a harmful situation, such as the joining of a religious cult, constitute false imprisonment, if that adult child accepted those acts. The appellate court ruled that Susan’s parents’ attempt to save their daughter from the religious cult constituted a valid defense to the charge of false imprisonment.

This was followed by the court’s explanation that parents, who reasonably believe the capacity of their child to make judgments is impaired, may take action to extricate that child from what they believe to be a harmful situation. Limiting the adult child’s movements in such a situation did not sufficiently deprive Susan of her liberty to support a judgment of false imprisonment. In addition, Susan’s acceptance of the program after the third day provide the defendants with an absolute defense to false imprisonment.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Coercion – The act of using force or intimidation to ensure compliance.
  • Consent – To approve, permit, or agree.
  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Duress – Threats, intimidation, or bullying intended to force someone to do something.
  • Felony – A criminal offense that is punishable by more than one-year imprisonment.
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offenses that is punishable by up to one year in jail.
  • Monetary Damages – Money ordered by the court to be paid to an individual or entity as compensation for injury or loss caused by the wrongful conduct of another party.
  • Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Probable Cause – Facts and circumstances leading to the belief that an accused person has committed a crime. Probable cause does not arise from a suspicion or a “hunch,” but from observable facts and circumstances.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.

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