false imprisonment | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

In the criminal law context, false imprisonment is the intentional and unauthorized confinement of another person without their consent.

False imprisonment refers to the act of restricting a person’s freedom without their consent or the authority to do so. Imagine being held against your will, even for a few minutes, unable to move freely or leave. You might be physically restrained, or fear might keep you in place because of threats or intimidation. This terrifying situation is what is called false imprisonment in the realm of criminal law. It’s an offense that infringes upon personal freedom, one of our most basic human rights.


A closer look reveals that this offense involves two key elements: intention and lack of consent. The individual carrying out the act must intentionally restrict another person’s movement. There should be a clear intent to confine the person, meaning accidental or unintentional confinement doesn’t constitute the offense. The second part, the absence of consent, is equally critical. If the person being confined agrees to the situation, the act may not be classified as false imprisonment.

Methods of False Imprisonment

It can take many forms. Physical barriers like locking someone in a room or tying them up are clear examples. Yet, it’s not always so obvious. Threats or acts of intimidation that instill fear and stop a person from leaving can also constitute false imprisonment. For example, threatening harm to a loved one if the person tries to leave is a non-physical method of imprisonment. Pretending to be a law enforcement officer to falsely arrest someone is another deceptive technique of false imprisonment.


So, what happens if you’re found guilty of false imprisonment? The penalties are generally quite serious. Depending on the jurisdiction, it might involve fines or imprisonment. A conviction for false imprisonment sends a clear message about society’s stand on personal freedom—it is a cherished right that cannot be violated without severe repercussions.

False Imprisonment vs. Unlawful Detention

It’s crucial not to confuse false imprisonment with unlawful detention. The key difference lies in who is doing the detaining. Unlawful detention occurs when someone with the legal authority to detain a person, like a police officer, oversteps their bounds. They might keep someone in custody for longer than they’re permitted to or without a proper reason. While both false imprisonment and unlawful detention infringe on personal freedom, the individual carrying out the act and their intention distinguishes one from the other.

Model Penal Code Elements

Under the Model Penal Code (MPC), which serves as a guide for United States law, false imprisonment is described in clear terms. The code states that a person commits false imprisonment when he knowingly restrains another unlawfully in circumstances that interfere substantially with the other person’s liberty.

There are three main elements to this offense under the Model Penal Code. Let’s break them down.

1. Knowingly restraining another person

This means that the person committing the act must be aware that they are restraining or restricting another person’s movements. This doesn’t necessarily mean physical restraint—it could also mean creating a situation where the person feels they cannot leave due to threats or intimidation.

2. Unlawful restraint

The restraint must be unlawful—meaning without legal justification. For instance, a police officer lawfully restraining a person under arrest wouldn’t be guilty of false imprisonment under the MPC. However, if someone poses as an officer to unlawfully arrest and confine a person, that would be false imprisonment.

3. Substantial interference with liberty

Finally, the person being restrained must experience substantial interference with their liberty. This means the confinement isn’t just inconvenient; it’s a significant infringement on the person’s freedom. It doesn’t need to last a specific length of time; even a short period can be substantial if it greatly affects the victim’s liberty.

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Last Modified: 055/19/2023

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