Imprisonment is the act of taking away someone’s freedom, though this does not always mean that the person is physically locked up in a jail cell. Imprisonment can be carried out for any reason, whether it’s with the permission of the government, or by a person who acts without any authority. If the latter is true, then the imprisonment is referred to as “false imprisonment.” To explore this concept, consider the following imprisonment definition.

Definition of Imprisonment


  1. The act of restraining someone against his will.
  2. The act of taking away someone’s freedom.


1250-1300       Middle English

What is Imprisonment

Imprisonment is the act of taking away someone’s freedom. This can either be done by locking the person up in a jail cell or other location, or by restricting his rights in some similar fashion. The most common understanding of imprisonment is the act of locking someone up in a jail or prison cell as a result of the crime he is accused of committing. The prisoner may be held in jail until the completion of his trial. If he is found guilty, then he may be locked up for even longer, the length of the sentence depending on the decision of the judge.

As an example of imprisonment, suppose that Patrick is pulled over by a police officer, who sees him driving recklessly. The officer smells alcohol on Patrick’s breath, so he puts Patrick through a series of sobriety tests to determine whether he is drunk, and therefore a danger to others on the road.

Patrick cannot walk a straight line, nor can he touch the tips of his fingers to his nose with outstretched arms, so the officer takes Patrick to the local precinct to be processed. The officer takes Patrick into custody, and delivers him to the jail. In this example, imprisonment not only gets Patrick off the streets until he sobers up, but serves to hold him until he can be arraigned on the serious crime of driving under the influence.

Imprisonment and Sentencing Guidelines

When a judge is determining a sentence that includes locking an offender up, he or she does not have sole discretion in the type or length of the sentence. Criminal sentencing may be subject to state laws for:

  • Mandatory sentences
  • Maximum sentences
  • Minimum sentences

As expected, each of these sentences comes with its own rules insofar as the length of imprisonment, and when they should be used. It has been a topic of debate as to whether or not justice is properly served if there is a minimum sentence attached to a particular crime. It is often believed that judges should have more discretion in assigning a sentence so as to be able to better tailor the sentence to the individual situation. Each situation is unique, even if the charges are the same, and there may be some aspects to a situation that warrant a lighter sentence.

For instance, a judge may not want to give someone one year in jail (if that is the minimum sentence) for stealing groceries, if the man’s motivation was that he was too poor to feed his starving child. However, if the law dictates that the minimum sentence for theft is one year in prison, the judge is forced to give the man the same prison sentence that someone with less honorable intentions would receive.

Mandatory Sentences

Mandatory sentences are sentences that are required by law to be imposed, regardless of any additional factors that the judge may wish to consider. If a person commits a particular crime, then there is a mandatory sentence attached to that crime. For instance, if someone commits murder in certain parts of the world, then the mandatory sentence is life in prison. Some life sentences, however, do not necessarily last the length of the prisoner’s life. In some cases, the prisoner is released early for good behavior after his case is reviewed after a minimum number of years already served.

Maximum Sentences

Maximum sentences are the maximum amount of time someone can sentenced to spend in prison, depending on the crime he commits. For instance, if the maximum sentence for armed robbery is seven years, then the most amount of time someone can spend in jail for committing that crime is seven years.

Maximum sentences help judges decide what sentence to hand down. If the judge knows that he can award up to seven years for armed robbery, then he knows he can assign any number of years up until that seven-year maximum, depending on the punishment that he feels would bests fit the crime.

Minimum Sentences

Conversely, minimum sentences contain the least amount of jail time that someone can be assigned upon being convicted of a criminal charge. In most jurisdictions in the U.S., judges are not empowered to hand down whatever sentences they see fit, but are required to adhere to the maximum and minimum sentences prescribed by law.

For example, if someone in the state of New York is convicted of possessing drugs in the first degree, then the minimum sentence that person can receive is 20 years in jail. Further, if someone is being convicted of a second or third offense, then the minimum sentence may increase, compared to the minimum sentence that would be handed down to a first-time offender for an identical crime.

False Imprisonment

False imprisonment is the unlawful imprisonment of someone against his will, by someone who lacks the proper authority. For example, a bank robber – or some random person off of the street – enters a bank, and threatens everyone inside with physical violence should they attempt to leave, he is holding those people against their, and without the proper authority. Should the bank robber then release the hostages unharmed, the hostages may file a lawsuit against the bank robber on the charge of false imprisonment, amongst other charges like intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Police officers who abuse their power to arrest may also be accused of false imprisonment. This happens if they imprison someone without the proper justification to do so. What this means is that if someone is arrested on a hunch and without any proof to back up that hunch, then the person can ultimately sue the police officers for false imprisonment upon his release. Also included in this lawsuit would be false arrest. The false imprisonment comes when the person is actually held in custody.

In actuality, the law says that it does not matter if the person is held against his will in a room, on the street, or even in a moving vehicle. If a person is held against his will, and without legal authority, the individual detaining him may be charged with false imprisonment, which is both criminally and civilly illegal.

In order to be able to prove false imprisonment in a civil lawsuit, the imprisonment or confinement must be proven to be:

  1. willful or intentional
  2. done without the detained person’s consent
  3. unlawful

Examples of false imprisonment:

  • A man grabs hold of a woman’s elbow, and forces her to stay put, refusing to allow her to leave until he says it’s okay.
  • A police officer or security guard detains someone based on the fact that he “looks suspicious,” but without any evidence he has done something wrong. For example, if the officer thinks the person looks like a terrorist but cannot actually prove any connection to terrorism, then that officer is probably liable for false imprisonment.
  • A nurse forces a patient to take medication against his will, by making physical or emotional threat.

False imprisonment can actually be considered a civil tort and a crime. This is because while the act of false imprisonment is civil in nature (i.e. the officer doing the arresting is not usually trying to physically harm the person he is arresting), ultimately false imprisonment is forcing someone to do something against his will, which is a crime.

Of course, there are instances where force is used to arrest someone, and so the criminality of these cases is clearer, provided such abuse can be proven. Evidence could include photographs of the physical abuse sustained at the hands of the officer, but the accuser must be able to prove that the officer did, in fact, inflict that abuse in order to succeed at a criminal trial.

False Imprisonment Example Involving a Good Deed

Licensed pharmacy technician Rachelle Jackson never thought that doing a good deed could come with such dire consequences. In November of 2002, a car ran a stop sign in Jackson’s neighborhood and hit a police car. Jackson happened to be walking near the scene and rushed over to help. When she approached the car, she saw that the officer behind the wheel was unconscious and his partner, Officer Kelly Brogan, was confused.

Jackson, fearing that the smoking police car may explode, quickly pulled Brogan from the car and helped her to the closest stoop. When the police arrived on the scene, they informed Jackson that the unconscious officer’s gun was missing. She was asked to go to the police station for questioning, which she assumed was so she could act as a witness as to what she had seen. In reality, she was being falsely arrested and charged with robbery and the battering and disarming of a police officer.

Jackson was then held for two days with little food and water, was refused sleep and bathroom privileges, and was repeatedly threatened with violence until she finally agreed to sign the statement the police had prepared for her saying that she had stolen the officer’s weapon. Jackson then was forced to spend ten months in the Cook County Jail awaiting her trial.

At the trial, several witnesses testified that it appeared to them that Jackson was only trying to help Officer Brogan. Some witnesses even testified that they were pressured by police into saying that Jackson had restrained Officer Brogan so that her nonexistent accomplice could steal Brogan’s partner’s gun.

The case was ultimately thrown out by a Circuit Court judge who cleared Jackson of all charges. In retaliation, Jackson rightfully sued the city, Brogan, and the two interrogation officers, accusing them of false arrest, malicious prosecution, coercive questioning, and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Thankfully, the federal jury agreed, and awarded Jackson $7.7 million – a victory that came six years after the day that changed her life forever.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Consent – To approve, permit, or agree.
  • Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
  • Tort – An intentional or negligent act, a civil wrong, as opposed to a criminal act, which causes harm to another.