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Guide to False Imprisonment

False imprisonment, sometimes called false arrest, is a form of injury involving, as the name implies, the unlawful restraint by one person of the physical liberty or freedom of another person.


In general. In order to sue over a false imprisonment, a plaintiff needs two things. First, they must have been detained or restrained against their will. Second, the restraint must have been unlawful.

  • Whether or not a false imprisonment is considered unlawful is determined on a sliding scale. The determination will depend on whether the detaining party had justification for the detention, the length of the detention, and how the detainee was treated during the detention.
  • If a reasonable avenue of escape for the detainee exists, there can be no false imprisonment. For example, if a plaintiff is detained by a convenience store on suspicion of shoplifting, but is never told that he cannot leave and has no one blocking his path, there is no false imprisonment. On a related note, the presence of verbal threats, say to stay within certain bounds or be physically battered, can constitute false imprisonment even if the detainee has the physical freedom to move around.
  • A detainee must be aware of the fact that he is being contained in order for there to be false imprisonment. If the detainee is unlawfully locked in a room but never becomes aware of this while the imprisonment lasts, there is no false imprisonment.
  • The statute of limitations on false imprisonment begins to run at the time the imprisonment is terminated.


Common Situations.

  • Retail Stores. The most common situation in which false imprisonment claims arise are those involving people detained by retail or convenience stores on suspicion of shoplifting. Such stores often have areas set aside to detain suspected shoplifters until such time as they either confess or reveal that they were not shoplifting in the first place. The better justification a store has for detaining a customer, say if they caught the customer doing what looked like pocketing merchandise on store cameras, the better the chances a court will rule in their favor.
  • Arrests. False imprisonment can arise when a police officer arrests a detainee and do not bring him before a magistrate within a reasonable period of time. What constitutes a reasonable period of time changes from state to state, but the longer one is detained without being brought before a magistrate, the greater become one’s chances to bring a successful claim for false imprisonment.


Damages. Plaintiffs in false imprisonment cases may be entitled to a variety of different kinds of damages.

    Nominal Damages. The presence of an unlawful detention entitles a detainee to at least nominal damages.
  • Compensatory Damages. A plaintiff in a case for false imprisonment is entitled to recover an amount that will be fair and reasonable compensation for the injuries sustained as a result of the wrongful detention. This amount might include damages for physical and emotional injuries, pain and suffering, and mental anguish that are proven to be the natural and proximate result of the wrongful detention.
  • Punitive Damages. Punitive damages, which are damages intended to punish the defendant for especially bad behavior, may be awarded in cases of false imprisonment where the detaining party subjected the detainee to undue humiliation or did damage to their reputation.

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