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False imprisonment is a restraint of a person in a bounded area without justification or consent. False imprisonment is a common-law felony and a tort. It applies to private as well as governmental detention. When it comes to public police, the proving of false imprisonment is sufficient to obtain a writ of habeas corpus.
As to what constitutes imprisonment, see Imprisonment.
The following are false imprisonment scenarios.
- The taking hostage of a bank's customers and employees by bank robbers.
- The detention of a customer by a business owner (e.g., hotel operator, apartment owner, credit card company) for the failure to pay a bill.
- Certain situations arising from state legislation, like California's Assembly Bill 1421, Laura's Law.
- A robber in a home invasion ties hostages up and takes them to a separate room.
What false imprisonment is not
Under United States law, the police have the right to detain someone if they have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, and that the person is so involved, or if the officer has reasonable suspicion, based on specific and articulable facts and inferences, that the person has been, is, or is about to be, engaged in a criminal activity.
Many jurisdictions of the United States recognize the common law shopkeeper's privilege, under which a person is allowed to detain a suspected shoplifter on store property for a reasonable period of time, with cause to believe that the person detained in fact committed, or attempted to commit theft of store property. The shopkeeper is allowed to ask the suspected individual to demonstrate that the suspect has not been shoplifting. The purpose of the shopkeeper's privilege is to find out if the individual is shoplifting and can the item be reclaimed. The shopkeeper's privilege, although recognized in most jurisdictions, is not as broad a privilege as that of a police officer's, and therefore one must pay special attention to the temporal element – that is, the shopkeeper may only detain the suspected criminal for a relatively short period of time. This is similar to a general right in many jurisdictions of citizen's arrest of suspected criminals by the public in limited circumstances.
This privilege has been justified by the very practical need for some degree of protection for shopkeepers in their dealings with suspected shoplifters. Absent such privilege, a shopkeeper would be faced with the dilemma of either allowing suspects to leave without challenge or acting upon his suspicion and risk making a false arrest.
In order for a customer to be detained, the shopkeeper must:
- Conduct the investigation on the store premises, or immediately near the premises.
- Have reasonable cause to believe the person detained was shoplifting.
- Use reasonable (non-excessive) force to detain the suspected individual.
- Not prolong the detention longer than a reasonable amount of time needed to gather all the facts.
The privilege for the most part is to be able to return the stolen goods. The shopkeeper may not force a confession. They do have a right to conduct a contemporaneous search of the person and the objects within that person's control.
Claim of false imprisonment
To prevail under a false imprisonment claim, a plaintiff must prove: (1) willful detention in a bounded area; (2) without consent; and (3) without authority of lawful arrest.(Restatement of the Law, Second, Torts)
The test of liability is not based on the store patron's guilt or innocence, but instead on the reasonableness of the store's action under the circumstances; the trier of fact usually determines whether reasonable belief is established. A guilty shoplifter can still sue for false imprisonment then if the detention was unreasonable.
In a Louisiana case in the United States, a pharmacist and his pharmacy were found liable by a trial court for false imprisonment. They stalled for time and instructed a patient to wait while simultaneously and without the patient's knowledge calling the police. The pharmacist was suspicious of the patient's prescription, which her doctor had called in previously. When the police arrived, they arrested the patient. While the patient was in jail, the police verified with her doctor that the prescription was authentic and that it was meant for her. After this incident, the patient sued the pharmacy and its employees. She received $20,000 damages. An appeals court reversed the judgment, because it believed the elements of false imprisonment were not met.
In Enright v. Groves, a woman sued a police officer for false imprisonment after being arrested for not producing her driver's license. The plaintiff was in her car when she was approached by the officer for not leashing her dog; she was arrested after being asked to produce her driver's license and failing to do so. She won her claim, despite having lost the case of not leashing her dog. The court reasoned that the officer did not have proper legal authority in arresting her, because he arrested her for not producing her driver's license (which itself was not a crime) as opposed to the dog leash violation.
In the United Kingdom, a case was brought to the High Court concerning the alleged unlawful detention of hundreds of members of the public during the May Day riots of 2001 in London, England. The police, using the tactic of "kettling", held a large crowd in Oxford Circus for several hours without allowing anyone to leave. Lois Austin, a peaceful protestor who had not broken the law, and Geoffrey Saxby, an innocent passer-by who was not involved in the demonstration, claimed that they were falsely imprisoned by the London Metropolitan Police and that their detention was in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights. The pair lost their court action in 2005, when the High Court ruled that the police had not acted unlawfully. An appeal against the ruling also failed in 2007. A ruling by the House of Lords declared that even in the case of an absolute right, the High Court was entitled to take the "purpose" of the deprivation of liberty into account before deciding if human rights law applied at all.
In a Clark County (Indiana) Circuit Court case, Destiny Hoffman was jailed for 154 days with "no hearing was conducted to determine the validity of such sanction and the defendant was not represented by counsel" according to deputy county prosecutor Michaelia Gilbert. An order by Judge Jerry Jacobi in the Clark County Circuit Court case was supposed to be a 48-hour jail stay for Hoffman, pending drug evaluation and treatment, "until further order of the court." After a motion by Prosecutor Gilbert, Special Judge Steve Fleece ordered Hoffman released and said Hoffman’s incarceration was “a big screw up".
- LeRoy Miller, Roger (2011). Business Law Today: The Essentials. United States: South-Western Cengage Learning. p. 102. ISBN 1-133-19135-5.
- "Shopkeepers Privilege Law & Legal Definition". USLegal. Retrieved 12 September 2014.
- Taylor v. Johnson, 796 So.2d 11 (La. App. 3 Cir. 2001).
- "False Imprisonment Alleged When Patient Is Detained with Suspicious Rx", found at Article in Pharmacy Times website. Retrieved October 8, 2008.
- 39 Colo.App. 39, 560 P.2d 851 (Colo. Ct. App. 1977)
- "Police sued over May Day protest". London: BBC News. 2002-04-28. Retrieved 2009-04-16.
- "Pair lose protest damages claim". London: BBC News. 2005-03-23. Retrieved 2009-04-16.
- "Pair lose May Day protest claim". London: BBC News. 2007-10-15. Retrieved 2009-04-16.
- "Judgments - Austin (FC) (Appellant) & another v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (Respondent)". House of Lords Appellate Committee. 2009-01-28. Retrieved 2009-04-16.
- Neil, Martha (28 January 2014). "Woman lost in system serves 154 days instead of 48 hours; prosecutor filed motion to get her out". American Bar Association. Retrieved 31 January 2014.
- POPP, GARY (24 January 2014). "'A BIG SCREW UP:' Woman sentenced to two days in Clark County jail serves five months". News and Tribune. Retrieved 31 January 2014.