false imprisonment

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A person commits false imprisonment when they engage in the act of restraint on another person which confines that person in a restricted area. False imprisonment is an act punishable under criminal law as well as under tort law. Under tort law, it is classified as an intentional tort

Prima Facie Case

  1.  The defendant willfully acts . . .
  2.  . . . intending to confine the plaintiff without the plaintiff's consent and without the authority of law
  3. the defendant's act causes the plaintiff's confinement
  4. the plaintiff is aware of the confinement

Bounded Area

An act of restraint can be a physical barrier (such as a locked door), the use of physical force to restrain, a failure to release, or an invalid use of legal authority.  An area is only bounded if freedom of movement is limited in all directions.  If there is a reasonable means of escape from the area, the area is not bounded. However, if the means of escaping will result in the risk of physical harm to the detainee, then the area is bounded. Further, threatening to harm the detainee's family if the detainee leaves would also result in the area being bounded. 

Threats of False Imprisonment

Threats of immediate physical force may also be sufficient to be acts of restraint. A mere threat to imprison will not qualify for false imprisonment. Typically when determining whether a threat counts as false imprisonment, the court will look at whether the plaintiff had a just fear of injury

Invalid Use of Legal Authority

An example of invalid use of legal authority is the detainment or arrest of a person without a warrant, with an illegal warrant, or with a warrant illegally executed. So long as the person is deprived of personal liberty, the amount of time actually detained is inconsequential. See, e.g. Schenck v. Pro Choice Network, 519 U.S. 357 (1997).

Shopkeeper's Privilege

One of the affirmative defenses to the false imprisonment tort is called the shopkeeper's privilege defense. The doctrine of shopkeeper's privilege states that in this situation, a shopkeeper defendant who reasonably believes that the plaintiff has stolen or is attempting to steal something from the defendant shopkeeper may detain the plaintiff in a reasonable manner for a reasonable amount of time to investigate. 

Off-Shoots of False Imprisonment

There are two other torts that fall under false imprisonment: the tort of "malicious prosecution" and the tort of "abuse of process". 

To prove malicious prosecution, the plaintiff must prove 3 things:

  1. The defendant acted without probable cause and with malice toward the plaintiff
  2. But for the defendant's actions, the prosecution would not have proceeded
  3. The plaintiff did not engage in the alleged misconduct

To prove an abuse of process tort, the plaintiff needs to prove that the defendant invoked the legal system in order to extort, threaten, or harass the plaintiff. 

[Last updated in November of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]