A false arrest is the restraint or detention by one person of another without lawful justification (probable cause or a valid arrest warrant) under an asserted legal authority to enforce the process of the law. False arrest is also referred to as false imprisonment and is generally considered a misdemeanor offense. Some jurisdictions distinguish between false arrest and false imprisonment, maintaining that a charge for false arrest requires the arresting party to have asserted the legal authority to make arrests. Such jurisdictions consider false imprisonment to consist of any unlawful restraint made, with or without a claim of authority.
The word ‘false’ in the phrase refers to the illegality of the restraint. It is not a measure of whether the individual was actually restrained to the extent that they perceived.
False arrest applies to private as well as governmental detentions and does not require any malice or bad faith on the offender’s part to make them guilty of the offense. An individual may honestly believe they have the authority to make an arrest and still be found guilty. Police officers, however, are generally immune to false arrest claims:. See also: qualified immunity.
[Last updated in November of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]