False Imprisonment

False imprisonment is the unlawful restraint of a person against his or her will, by someone without legal authority or justification. For example, an armed bank robber yells at the customers to get down on the floor, threatening to shoot them if they try to leave. Since the bank customers know they might be killed if they try to leave, they are being held against their will. The bank customers may accordingly be able to claim damages, and the bank robber may be charged with the crime of false imprisonment.

Even the police may be charged with false imprisonment, if they exceed their authority (such as detaining someone without justification). In fact, any person who intentionally restricts another’s freedom of movement without their consent (and without legal justification) may be liable for false imprisonment, which is both a crime and a civil wrong. False imprisonment can occur in a room, on the street, or even in a moving vehicle—just as long as the subject is unable to move freely, against his or her will.


All states have false imprisonment laws to protect against unlawful confinement. Under Pennsylvania law, the elements of false imprisonment are:

  1. the detention of another person; and

  2. the unlawfulness of such detention. Such detention is unlawful if it is a consequence of a false arrest. Brockington v. City of Phila., 354 F. Supp. 2d 563, 572 n.10 (E.D. Pa. 2005) (internal citations omitted).

False imprisonment can come in many forms, including any threat or use of authority that confines one against their will. While physical force is often used, it is not required. Moreover, the restraint of a person may be imposed by physical barriers (such as being locked in a car) or by unreasonable duress (such as holding someone “within the bounds of a fixed area” over a long period of time). 

A person claiming false imprisonment must have reasonably believed that he or she was being confined. A court will decide whether that belief was reasonable, by determining what a reasonably prudent person under similar circumstances would do or believe. In addition, the person doing the confinement must have intended to confine and not have the privilege to do so.


Defenses to false imprisonment claims often turn on whether the person claiming the imprisonment gave consent, whether either actual or implied, or whether the person who confined another had reasonable grounds to justify the imprisonment. Below are common defenses to a false imprisonment claim:

Voluntary Consent

A person who consents to confinement without duress, coercion, or fraud, may not later claim false imprisonment. Therefore, voluntary consent to confinement is often a defense to false imprisonment.

Police Privilege

In all states, police officers have the right to detain someone whom they have probable cause to believe has engaged in wrongdoing, or when they believe a crime has been committed.

Shopkeeper’s Privilege

Many states have laws protecting merchants from false imprisonment claims. These laws typically allow merchants to detain retail patrons for a brief period of time when they have reasonable grounds to believe that the person has committed retail theft. In many instances, a shopkeeper is limited to detaining a person to request or verify ID, make a reasonable inquiry into whether the person has purchased the merchandise, and/or to hold the person in custody until a peace officer arrives. In determining liability, a court will look at whether the store’s actions under the circumstances were reasonable. A guilty shoplifter can still sue for false imprisonment if the detention was unreasonable.

Citizen’s Arrest

In some instances, a person who is not a law enforcement official can make a “citizen’s arrest” by calling for a peace officer when a crime is committed or attempted in their presence, although this defense is not meant to give citizens the right to take the place of law enforcement.