False Arrest

A false arrest is an arrest that is made without a warrant, or without probable cause. It is possible to sue law enforcement officials for false arrest. However, those who are typically sued for false arrest include businesses, private citizens, private security, or bounty hunters. To explore this concept, consider the following false arrest definition.

Definition of False Arrest


  1. An arrest made without a warrant or probable cause.
  2. Arrest or detention of a person contrary to, or unauthorized by, law.


1925-1930       English

What is False Arrest

A false arrest is an arrest that is made without a warrant, or with a lack of probable cause. A person will sometimes sue on the grounds of false arrest, if the charges against him have been dropped. This is because there may never have been a legitimate reason to arrest him in the first place. For example, false arrest claims are less likely to be successful in the below situations, which are legitimate reasons for arresting someone:

  • An arrest warrant has been issued for that person by an appropriate court.
  • A police officer has reasonable and probable cause to believe that the person being arrested has committed a crime.
  • A police officer arrests someone only long enough to identify him as a suspect in a case involving a less serious offense, and to give him a summons to appear in court.
  • An arrest is made on the scene of a crime, if it is feared that the suspect may flee the scene.

While the laws may differ by jurisdiction, there is a generally accepted practice insofar as what defines a lawful arrest. First, the person being arrested must be told that he is being arrested. However, if a private citizen is making the arrest, he may refrain from disclosing the arrest if he believes that doing so will lead to the person’s escape, or if it will make the situation more dangerous.

Next, the person being arrested must be informed of the reason for his arrest. The same rule applies here for a citizen’s arrest, in that should disclosing the reason for arrest may lead to the suspect becoming more dangerous or escaping, then – and only then – can this requirement be skipped. If a law enforcement officer is following through on a warrant in making the arrest, then the person being arrested must be told about the warrant and/or shown the warrant upon his request.

If, however, a private citizen is the one making the arrest, then the person being arrested must be told about the warrant. This most commonly applies to bounty hunters or bond agents, and is true whether or not the person being arrested asks to see the warrant.

Federal Law on False Arrest

The federal law on false arrest is more strict than state law on the same topic. Under federal law, a false arrest is considered a violation of someone’s Fourth Amendment rights. The purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to protect citizens from false arrest. In particular, the Fourth Amendment states:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Most states consider false arrest to be a type of false imprisonment. False imprisonment is defined as a person being imprisoned against his will, with his freedom restricted, and his being prohibited from moving about freely. The main difference between false arrest and false imprisonment is that, in a false imprisonment case, the person was held against his will for longer than is allowed by the law. Some states define false imprisonment as imprisonment that includes the person being injured in some way. However, that injury does not have to be physical. It can also be an emotional or financial injury, also known as “damages.”

Federal law on false arrest, contained in Title 42 section 1983 of the U.S. Code, provides that a person whose Fourth Amendment rights have been violated is entitled to collect damages for that violation. The injured – or falsely arrested party – may bring a civil lawsuit against the person, entity, or agency that deprived him of his constitutional rights.

False Arrest by a Police Officer

Typically, false arrest by a police officer is thought to be an arrest that is made by police who do not have the evidence to support such an arrest. However, this is incorrect. False arrest by a police officer occurs when the officer acts beyond the scope of his authority.

For example, false arrest by a police officer can occur when the officer arrests someone for insulting him or otherwise engaging in behavior that the officer does not like. Simply insulting a police officer is not a crime, and unless another reason presents itself for the officer to arrest the person, then the arrest is illegal. It is, however, unlikely that a prosecutor would charge the officer with false arrest in this case.

Civil Lawsuit for False Arrest

A civil lawsuit for false arrest may be brought against someone who restrains someone illegally. The damages claimed under a civil lawsuit for false arrest can include the humiliation that someone suffers from being falsely arrested, as well as any physical injuries that may result. A person can also begin a civil lawsuit for false arrest if his reputation is ultimately tarnished as a result of being arrested.

For example, a false arrest that can spawn a civil lawsuit is one in which a security guard wrongfully arrests a customer at a shopping mall. Not only can the person who was wrongfully arrested sue the security guard, but he can also sue the store for whom the security guard works, whether or not the guard is brought up on related criminal charges for the false arrest.

As far as false imprisonment is concerned, some states have rules that dictate how long a store owner can detain someone who is suspected of shoplifting. Typically, the rule is that the length of the detention, and the way in which the person is detained, should be reasonable under the specific circumstances of that case. A judge and/or jury will then decide whether or not probable cause existed in that particular case.

False Arrest Example Involving a Penknife

On May 13, 1996, David McLain, the manager of Boater’s World in Waldorf, Maryland, reported a theft at his store. McLain described the suspects as four black men in their twenties, who were wearing baggy clothes, with one suspect taller than the rest. McLain also provided a description of the suspects’ car, including a partial license plate number.

The call was broadcast over the police radio, and an officer soon spotted a car matching the description at a nearby mall. The officer then saw four black males who matched the given description leave the car and enter the mall. The officer then called for help, and several officers, including Sergeant McGuigan with the Charles County Sheriff’s Department, arrived and approached the four men.

One of the suspects was Crispin Sorrell, who was paying for some shirts when he and his friends were asked to step outside. The four men were lined up, patted down, and detained until McLain came down from Boater’s World, whereupon he informed the officers that Sorrell and his friends were not the thieves.

However, during the pat-down, a three-inch folding knife was found in Sorrell’s pocket. Despite being cleared of the theft at Boater’s World, McGuigan still arrested Sorrell for carrying a concealed deadly weapon. The charges against Sorrell were eventually dropped, and on May 11, 1999, Sorrell filed two lawsuits alleging violations of Title 42, Section 1983 and several state laws.

Sorrell’s Title 42 claims alleged that McGuigan violated his Fourth Amendment rights by stopping him without reasonable suspicion, frisking him without having a reasonable belief that he was armed and dangerous, and arresting him without probable cause. McGuigan filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming qualified immunity, based on his authority as a police officer. On March 28, 2000, the district court held that McGuigan was not entitled to qualified immunity on Sorrell’s claim of illegal arrest, and denied the summary judgment request.

McGuigan appealed the district court’s ruling to the United States Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision, noting that the knife that Sorrell had on him was a “penknife” as defined by the law and was, therefore, a legal “penknife without switchblade.”

McGuigan argued that a reasonable police officer would not necessarily know the specific cases the state of Maryland had heard previously regarding penknives. However, the Court of Appeals countered that reasonable officers are expected to know clearly established law.

Specifically, the Court held that:

“Qualified immunity protects law enforcement officers from bad guesses in gray areas … Because the legality of Sorrell’s penknife was clearly established, Sergeant McGuigan was not in a gray area. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s order denying him qualified immunity.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Probable Cause – The amount and quality of evidence and information required to search or arrest someone, or to charge them with a crime.
  • Qualified Immunity – A doctrine that protects government officials from liability for civil damages in cases where their conduct does not conduct violate another’s statutory or constitutional rights.
  • Warrant – A writ issued by a court or other legal official authorizing law enforcement or other agency to make an arrest, search a premises, or take some other action related to the administration of justice.