False Imprisonment: Can I Sue?

If you feel like you have been the victim of a false imprisonment, you may be wondering what legal recourse you have. After all, your life has likely been severely affected by the ordeal; shouldn’t you be able to be compensated for your losses?

As you can imagine, there is a lot that goes into answering that question. First, you have to know if you have indeed been the victim of false imprisonment.

What Constitutes False Imprisonment?

False imprisonment is anytime someone is confined to a certain area by another, without the victim’s consent, without legal justification and with the victim’s knowledge. The detention can happen with physical violence or simply the threat of violence against a person’s property or reputation, or by locking them in a confined space (a basement, for example).

false imprisonment

If the detained person has an easy means of escape in which they can avoid the harm that has been threatened, and they do not utilize it, they may not have grounds for a suit. A threat of force is established if a reasonable person would believe that they would be hurt in some way if they attempted to leave the area of imprisonment, even if they were tricked by something like a fake gun or a verbal lie.

Of course, circumstances are different if you have not been imprisoned by a fellow “civilian”. If someone in authority detains you, they have legal protection, as we will see below.

Did the Police Falsely Imprison You?

To start, false imprisonment is not to be confused with a wrongful conviction, where the person imprisoned was later exonerated of committing a crime through DNA or some other means. Those are different cases with their own set of procedures (or lack thereof) in each state. At the time of the imprisoning it was considered legally justified since no one (hopefully) was aware of the person’s innocence.

To be justified in arresting you, a police officer needs probable cause to detain you. Even if you are innocent of whatever they accuse you of, you still don’t have a case if they had reason to believe you had committed a crime.

Other ways police officers can be liable for false imprisonment is if they keep you detained for an extended period of time without going before a judge, detained for too long after an arrest without a warrant, detained after you have been found not guilty in a court of law and detained longer than the sentence you received called for.

All who are directly involved in the false imprisonment can be liable, including supervisors if it can be proven that they knew of, ordered or condoned the act. The officer who acted on a supervisor’s order may not be liable, however.

Other Authority Figures

Police are not the only authority figures that can detain someone for too long or unlawfully. In early 2016, a jury awarded a woman who was on probation $175,000 after they deemed that a private probation company had been getting her put in jail anytime she wasn’t prompt enough with their fees.

According to the Augusta Chronicle in Augusta, Georgia, when Kathleen Hucks “was arrested in September 2012 after failing to pay her Sentinel monthly fee of nearly $300, Hucks’ husband took her medication to the jail, which refused to accept it. He then called Sentinel to seek her release and was told he would have to pay the fee.”

Hucks “subsequently had a seizure in jail and spent nearly three weeks there before receiving a hearing with a judge, who ordered her release because her sentence had expired four years earlier, in 2008. Also in 2008, her sister had paid off the full $3,256 Hucks owed the court, but Sentinel employees testified that Hucks remained under Sentinel’s control because she had not completed a risk-reduction class or shown proof of drug and alcohol treatment,” according to the Chronicle.

Shopkeeper’s Privilege

Another area where false imprisonment comes up is when a business owner physically detains someone they suspect of shoplifting. You’ve probably seen it before: store security holding someone until the police arrive. A shopkeeper has some leeway under these circumstances, but they must have reason to suspect theft, and even then many states have specific laws that deal with how long security or the management of a business can detain someone they suspect of being a thief.

Possible Defenses

If you do end up suing someone for false imprisonment, there are a few defenses they can go with to counter your suit. As mentioned above, police just need to prove probable cause, that the detention was justified and that the duration was not unreasonably long. A business owner will point to you being suspected of shoplifting. If someone that has no perceived authority falsely imprisons you they will have to establish that you were not detained and could leave at any time, somehow justify the detainment or establish that consent was given.

Some officials and professionals are exempted from civil liability for false imprisonment under certain circumstances, like judicial officers, government officials entrusted with judicial functions, attorneys and doctors.

What a Jury or Judge Could Do

When considering possible damages for someone who was falsely imprisoned, a judge and jury will look at several areas, like the amount of physical suffering involved, mental suffering and humiliation, loss of time, wages, or interruption of business, reasonable and necessary expenses incurred and injury to a person’s reputation.

If you feel like you have been the victim of a false imprisonment in the Washington D.C. area, contact the attorneys at The McDaniel Law Group, PLLC or call 202-331-0793 for a consultation.

Additional Reading:

Winning Over a Jury

Understanding What Your Case is Worth