False Imprisonment – Explained

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "False Imprisonment – Explained," in The Business Professor, updated January 9, 2015, last accessed March 30, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/knowledge-base/false-imprisonment/.
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False Imprisonment
This video explains the intentional tort of false imprisonment.

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Return to: TORT LAW

What is “False Imprisonment”?

False imprisonment is the wrongful detention of a person without that person’s consent. The detention does not have to involve physical force. It can involve a threat of physical force or the apprehension of harm for failure to remain in a specific location. The key aspect is that the detained individual must reasonably believe that she cannot leave the detention without unjust repercussions.

  • Note: The detention area must be relatively defined.
  • Example: This situation often arises when an agent of a retail establishment detains a suspected shoplifter. If the individual is not actually a shoplifter, the detention is wrongful and can constitute false imprisonment.

Discussion: What type of action do you believe would reasonably make a person believe that she is detained without the ability to leave? Why?

Practice Question: Everett is a security guard at a local clothing store. He believes that a customer is shoplifting. He asks the customer to step into the back room of the store to interrogate her. Upon arriving in the back room, the customer says that she feels uncomfortable and wishes to leave the store. Everett tells her that the police are coming and that she cannot leave until they arrive. Under what conditions has Everett committed a tort?

Proposed Answer

  • False imprisonment is an act punishable under the law. It occurs when a person commits an act of restraint on another person which confirms that the person in a bounded area. The claimant must establish a prima facie case, that the defendant willfully acted, that the defendant confined the plaintiff without the plaintiff’s consent and without the authority of the law, that the defendant’s act caused the plaintiff’s confinement and that the plaintiff is aware of his/her own confinement. 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. However, one of the affirmative defenses to the false imprisonment tort, which is recognized in some states, is called the shopkeeper’s privilege defense. The doctrine of a shopkeeper’s privilege states that in that 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. In the example in the practice question, Everett acted in the capacity of a shopkeeper acting on suspicion of a possible shoplift, hence he has not committed a tort. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/false_imprisonment

Academic Research

Arbel, Efrat, Devalued Liberty and Undue Deference: The Tort of False Imprisonment and the Law of Solitary Confinement (June 4, 2018). Supreme Court Law Review, Vol. 84, 2018. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3190520

Penovic, Tania, Testing the Boundaries of Administrative Detention Through the Tort of False Imprisonment (January 1, 2008). (2008) 16 Torts Law Journal, 156-181. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2282245

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