Holding people hostage during a robbery. Drugging someone without consent in order to restrain her. Physically detaining a person so he can’t leave. Locking someone in a room for which there is no way out. These are all examples of the crime of false imprisonment, which is the unlawful confinement or restraint of a person without legal authority or justification. The detention has to be illegal and done without the consent of the person detained. The restraint must be intentional, with no reasonable means of escape for the victim, and can be as short as seconds or continue for days or longer. Defenses to a charge of false imprisonment include consent to the restraint by the victim and cases where a shopkeeper detains someone he reasonably believes has committed theft in his store.
Is False Imprisonment a Felony?
To establish a claim of false imprisonment in criminal court, a state prosecutor must decide if the elements of false imprisonment have occurred to support a case. In a criminal case, the state prosecutes the perpetrator, and if found guilty, the court sentences him to jail time or more severe penalties. False imprisonment can be charged either as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the severity of the crime and the jurisdiction in which it took place. In some states, like Georgia, Washington and Florida, false imprisonment is always charged as a felony. In other states, false imprisonment is charged as a misdemeanor, unless there are other circumstances that elevate it to a felony. In Colorado, false imprisonment is charged as a felony if force or threat of force is used, or if the victim is detained for 12 hours or longer. The default charge in California is a misdemeanor, unless the unlawful restraint involved violence, in which case it would be charged as a felony.
Read More: Difference Between Kidnapping & False Imprisonment
Penalties for False Imprisonment
Penalties for committing the crime of false imprisonment differ in each state, but typically include jail time and a fine. The penalty in Georgia is imprisonment for one to 10 years. The perpetrator can be fined and receive increased penalties and charges in certain circumstances, including if the victim was under 14 years old and not a child of the suspect or if the imprisonment lasted more than 12 hours. In Washington, perpetrators are sentenced with confinement in a state correctional institute for five years, a fine of up to $10,000 or both. In Florida, the penalty for false imprisonment is up to five years in prison, five years of probation and a fine of $5,000.
In Colorado, the penalty depends on how false imprisonment was charged. If it was charged as a misdemeanor, the perpetrator may spend up to one year in jail, pay a fine of $1,000 or both. If it was charged as a felony, the sentence is up to three years in prison. The penalty for misdemeanor false imprisonment in California is one year in jail, court fines and probation. The penalty for felony false imprisonment is up to three years in prison.
Examples of False Imprisonment
When false imprisonment is mentioned, thoughts of being wrongly jailed spring to mind. But the charge of false imprisonment doesn’t necessarily require a jail cell. It doesn’t even require physical constraint. Examples of false imprisonment include:
- Locking someone in a room without her consent.
- A spouse attempting to prevent the other spouse from walking out the door, even briefly. False imprisonment charges are common in alleged domestic violence situations.
- Grabbing someone without consent and holding him so he can’t leave.
- Medical staff drugging a patient without consent under threat of harm.
- Holding something valuable to another person with the intent of keeping that person in place.
A charge of false imprisonment won't hold up if there was a reasonable means of escape, such as an open patio door in the house or the ability to free oneself from someone’s grip without fear of harm. A claim also will not hold up if the alleged victim consented to the detention.
Are Kidnapping and False Imprisonment the Same Crime?
Kidnapping and false imprisonment are similar, but there is one big distinction: For a charge of false imprisonment, the alleged victim is restrained, but not moved anywhere. If the victim is moved from one place to another, it is considered kidnapping, which is a more serious offense with severe penalties. In Georgia, for example, a person convicted of kidnapping can face a prison term of 10 years to life, depending on the age of the victim. If the victim was held for ransom or was physically harmed, the perpetrator can receive the death sentence.
In California, the penalty for kidnapping is three to 11 years in state prison, depending on the age of the victim. If the perpetrator is convicted of a serious crime that occurs during the course of the kidnapping, such as murder, he can be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole or the death penalty.
Can You Sue for False Imprisonment?
You can sue in civil court for false imprisonment. To prove the offense, you must establish all elements of false imprisonment. In a civil case, you can seek monetary damages that can help you recover from the offense. These include the value of any property or other loss suffered as a result of the false imprisonment and legal fees.
The legal definition of false imprisonment is the unlawful confinement or restraint of a person without legal authority or justification.
- Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute: False Imprisonment
- Legal Dictionary: False Imprisonment
- Georgia Criminal Lawyer: False Imprisonment
- Justia: 2010 Georgia Code. Title 16, Article 3. Kidnapping, False Imprisonment and Related Offenses.
- FindLaw: Colorado Revised Statutes Title 18 Criminal Code § 18-3-303 False imprisonment
- FindLaw: California Code, Penal Code - PEN § 237
- FindLaw: California Code, Penal Code - PEN § 207
- Florida Legislature: Chapter 787. Kidnapping; False Imprisonment; Luring or Enticing a Child; Custody Offenses.
Leslie Bloom earned a J.D. from U.C. Davis’ King Hall, with a focus on public interest law. She is a licensed attorney who has done advocacy work for children and women. She holds a B.S. in print journalism, and has more than 20 years of experience writing for a variety of print and online publications, including the Journal of Juvenile Law and Policy.