What does false imprisonment mean?

False imprisonment is the unlawful violation of the personal liberty of another. Cal. Penal Code §236.

Author: Brad Nakase, Attorney

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False imprisonment is the non-consensual, intentional confinement of a person, without lawful privilege, for an appreciable length of time, however short, which causes the plaintiff to suffer harm. Molko v. Holy Spirit Ass’n, 46 Cal. 3d 1092, 1123; Scofield v. Critical Air Medicine, 45 Cal. App. 4th 990, 996.

False Imprisonment Elements

  1. A plaintiff must show that there was non-consensual and intentional confinement.
  2. The confinement must have occurred without legal privilege.
  3. The confinement must have occurred for an appreciable length of time.
  4. The confinement must have caused the plaintiff to suffer harm.

Please note that false imprisonment and false arrest are NOT separate torts. False arrest is simply one way of committing false imprisonment. Asgari v. City of Los Angeles, 15 Cal. 4th 744, 752 n.3.

Element 1. Non-consensual Confinement

Non-consensual – The confinement must be non-consensual. Scofield v. Critical Air Medicine, Inc., 45 Cal. App. 4th 990, 1009. Where consent to confinement is procured through misrepresentation, confinement is non-consensual. Scofield v. Critical Air Medicine, Inc., 45 Cal. App. 4th 990, 1009.

If a plaintiff agrees to the imprisonment in any way, he will not effectively show a false imprisonment claim.

Confinement – Restraint may be effectuated by employing the following:

  • physical force. (Moffatt v. Buffmums’, Inc., 21 Cal. App. 2d 371, 374);
  • the threat of force or arrest. Vandiveer v. Charters, 110 Cal. App. 347, 351;
  • physical barriers. Schanafelt v. Seaboard Finance Co., 108 Cal. App. 2d 420, 423);
  • fraud or deceit. Cal. Penal Code §237; Molko v. Holy Spirit Ass’n, 46 Cal. 3d 1092, 1123;
  • or using any other form of unreasonable coercion. Restatement (Second) of Torts §40A).

In false imprisonment, the injury suffered is illegal confinement rather than any detriment after imprisonment. Sullivan v. County of Los Angeles, 12 Cal. 3d 710, 716.

The plaintiff did not have to be aware that they were confined during the confinement. If a plaintiff realizes he was held against his will in false imprisonment, he may file a claim. Scofield v. Critical Air Medicine, Inc., 45 Cal. App. 4th 990, 1003.

A plaintiff does not need to allege that he suffered any damages. The only thing he must allege is that he suffered confinement itself. Du Lac v. Perma Trans Products, Inc., 103 Cal. App. 3d 937, 945.

Imprisonment or involuntary hospitalization

In a 1974 case involving a legally jailed plaintiff, the court held that the plaintiff could allege a false imprisonment claim.

The court’s holding rested upon the fact that the sheriff failed to release the plaintiff from jail after the plaintiff lawfully completed his sentence. Therefore, once his sentence ended, the sheriff was not authorized to hold the plaintiff in jail against his will. Sullivan v. County of Los Angeles, 12 Cal. 3d 710, 714.

Similarly, the involuntary hospitalization of a person in a mental institution in violation of a statute may constitute false imprisonment. Maben v. Rankin, 55 Cal. 2d 139, 144.

Physical barriers

A plaintiff may allege a claim of false imprisonment if they are physically blocked from leaving a space by a physical barrier.

For example, in a 1951 case, the court held that a pregnant plaintiff established a claim by proving that she was confined in her home by a loan agent who informed her not to leave. The loan agent blocked the exit from her driveway with his car, and the plaintiff could not leave. Schanafelt v. Seaboard Finance Co., 108 Cal. App. 2d 420, 423.

Physical force

Force or the threat of force is not essential to false imprisonment.

A force or threat of force is merely one way to accomplish false imprisonment. Scofield v. Critical Air Medicine, Inc., 45 Cal. App. 4th 990, 1000.

An employee was accused of stealing money belonging to the defendant corporation and was forcibly detained when attempting to leave the office of the corporation’s general manager. Moffatt v. Buffams, Inc., 21 Cal. App. 2d 371, 374.

 Threats of force

In an older case, the court demonstrates an example of a threat of force when an employer threatened her employee with jail time.

When an employee was accused of stealing money from her employer, her employer questioned her with two investigators. She threatened her employee that the investigators would forcefully take her to jail if she did not sign a confession within 3 minutes. Vandiveer v. Charters, 110 Cal. App. 347, 349.

False arrest

Imprisonment based on lawful arrest is not false.

On the other hand, since an arrest involves detention or restraint, false arrest always involves imprisonment. Moore v. San Francisco, 5 Cal. App. 3d 728, 735.

Threats of arrest or embarrassment

In a 1994 case, the court found a claim of false imprisonment when the employee was confined to a room during interrogation for stealing.

A salesperson was confined when her employer detained her in a windowless interrogation room where managers and security agents accused her of stealing. They threatened to have her arrested and charged with the crime unless she confessed and told her that witnesses to the incident were waiting in the next room. Fermino v. Fedco, Inc., 7 Cal. 4th 701, 715.

Other fears and threats

Here are some examples of other fears and threats in false imprisonment actions:

A false imprisonment cause of action was stated against a funeral director. Instead of driving a bereaved family to the burial service, he drove them to his bank and stated that no one was going anywhere until he got paid. Wilson v. Houston Funeral Home, 42 Cal. App. 4th 1124, 1135.

When restraint results from threats of divine retribution, it is protected by religious speech. It cannot form the basis for tort liability. Molko v. Holy Spirit Ass’n, 46 Cal. 3d 1092, 1123.

A plaintiff agreed to remain in isolation for a week. He was threatened to go into isolation when the defendant stated that his sins would not be absolved unless he did so.

The threats were protected by religious speech and could not form the basis of tort liability. Snyder v. Evangelical Orthodox Church, 216 Cal. App. 3d 297, 304-05.

When a defendant restrains a plaintiff and states that they will not be able to leave, this forms liability for false imprisonment. Schanafelt v. Seaboard Finance Co., 108 Cal. App. 2d 420, 423.

An employee suspected of stealing money from a corporation was unreasonably detained for five hours while corporate agents attempted to coerce her into a confession. Moffat v. Buffams, Inc., 21 Cal. App. 2d 371, 375.

Fraud or deceit

In a 1996 case, the court found that unlawful confinement resulted from a medical air transport company’s misrepresentation regarding its authority to transport ill children. Scofield v. Critical Air Medicine, Inc., 45 Cal. App. 4th 990, 1009.

Element 2: Intentional

To prove false imprisonment, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a particular mental state.

The defendant must have intended to confine or to create a similar intrusion on the plaintiff.

The plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant intended to cause harm. Fermino v. Fedco, 7 Cal. 4th 701, 716; Du Lac v. Perma Trans Products, Inc., 103 Cal. App. 3d 937, 944 (doctrine of transferred intent applies).

To prove false imprisonment, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant intended to cause confinement. See Fermino v. Fedco, 7 Cal. 4th 701, 716.

False statements made to a police officer by a public employee were intended to induce arrest and directly encouraged, instigated, and incited subsequent arrest. Harden v. San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Dist., 215 Cal. App. 3d 7, 16.. To be liable for false arrest, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant knowingly made false statements to the police with the intent to induce an arrest. The defendant is not liable unless the act is done to impose confinement or with the knowledge that such confinement will, to a substantial certainty, result from it. Du Lac v. Perma Trans Products, Inc., 103 Cal. App. 3d 937, 942.

Where a plaintiff alleges that another knowingly made false accusations to the police, the intent of the false accuser is not certain.

The essential intent element must be spelled out in these cases to state a cause of action. Du Lac v. Perma Trans Products, Inc., 103 Cal. App. 3d 937, 944.

The plaintiff was not required to allege that the defendant knew the plaintiff and specifically acted with the intent to have him arrested.

An allegation that the defendant intended to induce an arrest of someone would be sufficient. Du Lac v. Perma Trans Products, Inc., 103 Cal. App. 3d 937, 944.

Element 3: Without lawful privilege

False arrest by business owners and merchants

A privilege exists for merchants who detain individuals because they have probable cause to believe they are about to injure their property.

The detention must be carried out for a reasonable time and in a reasonable manner. Fermino v. Fedco, Inc., 7 Cal. 4th 701, 716.

Sending a child to his room would not constitute false imprisonment since it is a lawful exercise of parental authority.

However, a parent who confines their child with the intent to endanger the health and safety of the child or for an unlawful purpose can be prosecuted for false imprisonment under Penal Code §236. People v. Checketts, 71 Cal. App. 4th 1190, 1194-1195.

The plaintiff had no false imprisonment claim for involuntary detention in a psychiatric facility where a nurse was authorized to admit patients for 72 hours.

The nurse had probable cause to believe that the detained individual was mentally disordered and posed a danger to himself or others. Heater v. Southwood Psychiatric Center, 42 Cal. App. 4th 1068, 1081 (under the former Welfare and Institutions Code §5150, the defendant was immune from liability).

The plaintiff had no false imprisonment claim where the county took custody of a child during a child abuse investigation and under the protective custody provisions of California Welfare and Institutions Code §300. Alicia T. v. County of Los Angeles, 222 Cal. App. 3d 869, 883.

False arrest by peace officer

A false arrest is an arrest without process, followed by imprisonment and damages.

Upon proof of an arrest without process, followed by imprisonment and damages, the burden is on the defendant to prove justification for the arrest. Cervantez v. J.C. Penney Co., 24 Cal. 3d 579, 592.

A complaint is insufficient if a plaintiff fails to allege facts under which the arrest would be unlawful. Muller v. Reagh, 215 Cal. App. 2d 831, 836.

In the context of false arrest actions, the term “without legal process” most often refers to:

  • Arrests without a warrant (see, e.g., Cervantez v. J.C. Penney Co., 24 Cal. 3d 579, 592; Dragna v. White, 45 Cal. 2d 469, 471-72; Ramsden v. Western Union, 71 Cal. App. 3d 873, 879.
  • Arrests without probable cause (see, e.g., Hamilton v. City of San Diego, 217 Cal. App. 3d 838, 845; Giannis v. City and County of San Francisco, 78 Cal. App. 3d 219, 225).
  • Arrests, after which an unreasonable delay occurred in taking the arrestee to the magistrate (see, e.g., Dragna v. White, 45 Cal. 2d 469, 472; City of Newport Beach v. Sasse, 9 Cal. App. 3d 803, 806.

What is an arrest?

  • An arrest is taking a person in custody in a case and the manner authorized by law.
  • A peace officer or private person may make an arrest. Cal. Penal Code §834.
  • A party is liable for arrest when they authorize, encourage, direct or assist an officer in doing an unlawful act, procure an unlawful arrest without process, or participate in the unlawful arrest, is liable for false arrest. Du Lac v. Perma Trans Products, Inc., 103 Cal. App. 3d 937, 941.

A peace officer may arrest a person in obedience to a warrant.  Under California Penal Code Section 836, a peace officer may arrest a person without a warrant whenever any of the following circumstances occur:

  • The officer has probable cause to believe that the person arrested has committed a public offense in the officer’s presence;
  • The arrestee has committed a felony, although not in the officer’s presence; and
  • The officer has probable cause to believe that the person arrested has committed a felony, whether or not a felony has been committed. Cal. Penal Code §836.

In a 1990 case, a deputy sheriff was not found liable for a pawnshop owner’s false arrest and imprisonment based on the owner’s refusal to give to the sheriff in exchange for a receipt. This allegedly stolen ring was displayed in plain view in a pawnshop case. Christians v. Chester, 218 Cal. App. 3d 273, 277.

The subsequent dismissal of an arrestee has no bearing on the validity of an arrest. Gomez v. Garcia, 112 Cal. App. 3d 392, 399.

Where an action for false arrest is based on an arrest without a warrant, all that needs to be alleged is the arrest without process, the imprisonment, and the damage.

It is not necessary to allege that the arrest was unlawful.

Where, however, the arrest is made with a warrant, it is necessary to allege its unlawfulness by pleading the facts constituting the invalidity of the legal process. Muller v. Reagh, 215 Cal. App. 2d 831, 836.

The following allegations were sufficient to plead a cause of action for false arrest. in Dragna v. White, 45 Cal. 2d 469, 471.

  • Defendants unlawfully arrested the plaintiff without a warrant and against his will, took him to a locked room at the police department where at 3:00 a.m., without his consent, they admitted a large number of newspaper reporters and photographers who took photographs of the plaintiff;
  • Defendants then removed the plaintiff to the city jail and, without permitting him to communicate with an attorney, kept him in a cell until they released him 3 days later; and
  • No charges were filed against the plaintiff either before or after his arrest.

For pleading purposes, the plaintiff may allege arrest without a warrant. The plaintiff need not anticipate and negate all of the facts under which the warrantless arrest would be lawful. Du Lac v. Perma Trans Products, Inc., 103 Cal. App. 3d 937, 944.

The following are other factors to consider when claiming false arrest by a police officer:

  • Police officers cannot claim that probable cause supports an arrest unless the facts available to the officers at the moment of the arrest warrant a reasonable person to believe that an offense has been committed. People v. Miller, 7 Cal. 3d 219, 225.
  • Probable cause for an arrest is shown if a person of ordinary caution would be led to believe and conscientiously entertain a strong suspicion of the guilt of the accused. People v. Fischer, 49 Cal. 2d 442, 446.
  • Officers who had received a report of a robbery and an identification of the robbers before stopping, handcuffing, and transporting likely perpetrators to police headquarters, had probable cause to arrest and were therefore not liable for false arrest based on the inadequate investigation. Hamilton v. City of San Diego, 217 Cal. App. 3d 838, 845.
  • The issue of probable cause is a question of law. Giannis v. City and County of San Francisco, 78 Cal. App. 3d 219, 225.
  • When a peace officer or a private person makes a warrantless arrest, the person arrested must, without unnecessary delay, be taken before the nearest magistrate for the filing of charges. Cal. Penal Code §849.
  • Ordinarily, an arrested person must be taken before a magistrate within 48 hours after their arrest, excluding Sundays and holidays. Cal. Penal Code §825(a)(1).
  • The delay of even a few hours before being taken before a magistrate may be deemed unnecessary. People v. Haydel, 12 Cal. 3d 190, 199.
  • The duty to bring an arrestee before a magistrate without delay is even more imperative where the arrest is made without a warrant. Dragna v. White, 45 Cal. 2d 469, 473.

False Arrest Caused by Private Citizen

A party is liable for false arrest when they authorize, encourage, direct or assist an officer in doing an unlawful act, procure an unlawful arrest without process, or participate in the unlawful arrest. Du Lac v. Perma Trans Products, Inc., 103 Cal. App. 3d 937, 941.

A private citizen who assists in making an arrest under the requestor’s persuasion of a police officer is not liable for false arrest. Peterson v. Robison, 43 Cal. 2d 690, 697.

A private person does not become liable for false arrest when they give information to the proper authorities in good faith, even if the information is mistaken.

The information may be the principal cause of the plaintiff’s imprisonment. Peterson v. Robinson, 43 Cal. 2d 690, 695.

A defendant who took no active part in bringing about the plaintiff’s arrest could not be held liable for identifying, to the best of his ability, the man he thought was the perpetrator of a crime. Cole v. Johnson, 197 Cal. App. 2d 788, 792.

Defendants will not be liable unless they take an active role in bringing about the unlawful arrest. Harden v. San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Dist., 215 Cal. App. 3d 7, 16.

An allegation that police based the arrest on a false accusation was sufficient to plead causes when an arrest is based on a false accusation by a third party. Du Lac v. Perma Trans Products, Inc., 103 Cal. App. 3d 937, 943 n. 2.

Where an arrest is based on a false accusation by a third party, the plaintiff must allege or show facts that the accusation was of a character that would foreseeably induce an arrest. Du Lac v. Perma Trans Products, Inc., 103 Cal. App. 3d 937, 943.

An allegation that an arrest is made at the request and insistence of the defendants is sufficient to plead third-party liability. Ramsden v. Western Union, 71 Cal. App. 3d 873, 880 (defendants who knew the information they gave to police was false and knew that plaintiffs were innocent, yet insisted on plaintiffs’ arrest were not protected by good faith privilege).

Element 4: Appreciable length of time

The plaintiff’s confinement must have been for an appreciable length of time. Molko v. Holy Spirit Ass’n, 46 Cal. 3d 1092, 1123. These lengths of time were considered false imprisonment:

  • Ten (10) days. Sullivan v. County of Los Angeles, 12 Cal. 3d 710, 715.
  • Five (5) hours. Moffat v. Buffams, Inc., 21 Cal. App. 2d 371, 374.
  • Four (4) hours. Washington v. Farlice, 1 Cal. App. 4th 766, 774.
  • Three (3) hours. Schanafelt v. Seaboard Finance Co., 108 Cal. App. 2d 420, 423.
  • Forty (40) minutes. Gibson v. J.C. Penney Co., 165 Cal. App. 2d 640, 647.
  • Fifteen (15) minutes. Alterauge v. Los Angeles Turf Club, 97 Cal. App. 2d 735, 736.

False imprisonment remedies

  • Nominal Damages (Cal. Civ. Code §3360; Scofield v. Critical Air Medicine, Inc., 45 Cal. App. 4th 990, 1007-08.
  • Compensatory Damages
  • In addition to emotional distress damages, the plaintiff is entitled to compensation for other resulting harm.
    • This resulting harm may be loss of time, physical discomfort or inconvenience, any resulting physical illness or injury to health, business interruption, and damage to reputation. (Cal. Civ. Code §3333; Scofield v. Critical Air Medicine, Inc., 45 Cal. App. 4th 990, 1009 (citing Prosser & Keeton, Torts §11, at 48-49 (5th ed. 1984))
    • Emotional Distress
  • A plaintiff can recover damages for extreme anxiety alone, even if no physical or monetary harm is suffered. (Schanafelt v. Seaboard Finance Co., 108 Cal. App. 2d 420, 423.)
  • Punitive Damages. Cal. Civ. Code §3294.
  • Attorneys’ Fees. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §1021.

A police officer’s liability for false arrest does not include damages caused by incarceration following the arrestee’s arraignment on formal charges. Asgari v. City of Los Angeles, 15 Cal. 4th 744, 758.

False imprisonment statute of limitations

The statute of limitations is one year. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §340(3).

California Government Code §945.3 prohibits false arrest actions against a peace officer or public entity while related criminal charges are pending and tolls the statute of limitations during this period. Cal Gov’t Code §945.3.

Affirmative defenses to false imprisonment

  • Statute of Limitations
  • Consent

Although a lack of consent is an element of false imprisonment, consent is often pleaded as an affirmative defense. Snyder v. Evangelical Orthodox Church, 216 Cal. App. 3d 297, 304.

  • Immunity. Frazier v. Moffatt, 108 Cal. App. 2d 379, 384.
  • Peace Officer Immunity. Cal. Penal Code §847.
  • Public Officer or Employee Immunity. Cal. Penal Code §836.5.
  • Publication Privilege
  • Freedom of Religion. Molko v. Holy Spirit Ass’n, 46 Cal. 3d 1092, 1123.
  • Parental Authority. People v. Checketts, 71 Cal. App. 4th 1190.

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