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False Imprisonment Charges, Cases, and Examples

What is False Imprisonment?

False imprisonment by definition describes a situation in which an individual who lacks legal authority or justification purposefully restrains and confines another individual's freedom to move within a bounded area. False imprisonment cases are classified as either torts or crimes depending on the severity or nature of the incident. Tort law classifies this as an intentional tort. Under criminal law, it can be deemed a misdemeanor or felony depending on the jurisdiction it occurs and the outcome of the false imprisonment.

A similar offense to false imprisonment is unlawful imprisonment. However, unlawful imprisonment is a more severe offense always tried under criminal law. In some states like Arizona, it is categorized as a less severe Class 6 felony or Class 1 misdemeanor depending on whether the offender voluntarily releases the victim safely before any official arrest has been made. In other states like Washington, unlawful imprisonment is a severe offense often categorized as a Class C felony that includes the likes of kidnapping.

Furthermore, false imprisonment only occurs in circumstances where the offender has no legal authority or jurisdiction to restrain the victim, is a willing participant, and the victim is aware of their confinement. On the other hand, unlawful imprisonment is not determined by either legal jurisdiction and authority or the victim's prior knowledge. Therefore, unlawful imprisonment tends to be a severe offense that cannot be tried as a tort.

Examples of False Imprisonment

There are numerous examples of false imprisonment. One of the most common scenarios is the shopping store scenario. If a random shopper suspects a fellow shopper of shoplifting and detains them, this would be an example of false imprisonment if the victim was innocent. The offender would, in this case, be liable for false imprisonment because although they had probable cause, they did not have the legal authority to detain the victim. However, this incidence should not be deemed unlawful imprisonment if the person detaining the alleged shoplifter was the storekeeper, store attendant, or store security guard. These three individuals, by law, have the authority and justification for detaining the victim regardless of the outcome.

A second scenario would be a police officer detaining a male African American individual without reasonable cause. If the police officer fails to provide valid grounds for detaining the person, this should be classified as false imprisonment. While the officer has the legal authority to detain individuals, they lack legal justification. Therefore, the officer has exceeded or abused their power to detain said individual, especially if the individual turns out to be innocent. The officer would not be guilty of false imprisonment if, for example, they detained the individual on suspicions of harboring drugs based on valid observations of their behavior.

Elements of False Imprisonment

As noted earlier, false imprisonment or unlawful confinement is classified as a tort or crime. The severity and the nature under which the offense is prosecuted vary from state to state in the U.S.A. For instance:

  • In California's Serra v. Lappin, the courts ruled that false imprisonment is an intentional tort.
  • In Georgia's United States v. McMiller, the courts ruled that false imprisonment is a crime of violence, classified as a Grade A criminal violation alongside unlawful possession of drugs and weapons.
  • In Texas' Ameen v. Merck & Co., the courts ruled that an offender may achieve false imprisonment through violence or threats of violence, in which case it would constitute a felony.

Although there are significant deviations in how state laws perceive the severity of false imprisonment, the offense tends to have three essential elements a plaintiff can use to prove a claim:

  • The defendant must be proven to have acted willingly.
  • The defendant must be proven to have lacked legal authority to detain the victim.
  • The defendant must be proven to have acted without the victim's or authorized party's consent.

Suppose these arguments are proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Then, the court will gauge whether the defendant had reasonable cause to detain the victim and the damages accompanying the false imprisonment claim.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does it mean when someone is charged with false imprisonment?

When someone is charged with false imprisonment, they stand accused in a court of law of forcefully detaining another individual in a bounded area. Throughout the case, the court will be left to determine whether the defendant exceeded their authority to detain, whether the defendant had a just cause to detain, or whether the victim had a choice.

Can a false imprisonment charge be dropped?

False imprisonment charges are challenging to drop. The defendant might attempt to file for dismissal of the charges, but as long as the three elements of false imprisonment (unlawful intent from the offender, the victim's lack of consent, and the offender's lack of authority to detain) are proven, the court will be more likely to rule in the plaintiff's favor.

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