False imprisonment is a civil wrong that involves holding someone against their will. It is also a crime under the California Penal Code, and an element of human trafficking. Statutes of limitations in general restrict the time period in which a case can be initiated for a particular cause of action.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations for false imprisonment in California is given in section 340(c) of the California Code of Civil Procedure. A civil action for civil penalties or punitive damages claiming false imprisonment must be filed within one year. It is grouped in the statute with actions for libel, slander, seduction of a minor and actions against a bank for payment on a forged check.
The elements of false imprisonment are set forth in sections 236 and 237 of the California Penal Code. Essentially, false imprisonment is a violation of a person's liberty. This is further defined to include substantial and restrained restriction of a person's liberty through fraud, deceit, coercion, duress or violence. Threat of injury is sufficient to constitute a violation of liberty when the person being threatened reasonably believes the threat is likely to be carried out.
The broad definition of false imprisonment means it can be constituted by a wide variety of acts. Simply grabbing someone's arm and refusing to let them leave for even a short period of time is false imprisonment. It's certainly not necessary to literally tie someone up or lock them in a room, although there must not be a reasonable opportunity to escape or else the person's liberty is not truly being violated. Simply keeping someone in place with a credible threat of violence, such as at the end of a gun, is false imprisonment.
False imprisonment is a tort and a crime. Under the penal code it serves as a sort of threshold to the more serious crime of human trafficking. Falsely imprisoning someone with the intent to sell or trade them is human trafficking. Absent the intent to traffic, false imprisonment is punishable as a crime by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or a year in county jail. If fraud, menace, violence or deceit is used to perpetrate the false imprisonment, the imprisonment can occur in a state correctional facility.
A general principle regarding statutes of limitations is the discovery rule. In California, a statute of limitations does not begin running until the victim of the tort knows or should know the acts giving rise to the claim. Thus, a claim can sometimes be brought well after the statute of limitations would have run if calculated from the events themselves. It is unlikely but not impossible this rule would be applied to false imprisonment, however, because it's rare a victim would be unaware of the acts that violated their liberty for a delayed period of time. Simply being unaware the acts constituted an actionable tort is not sufficient to prevent the commencement of the limitations period.