False Imprisonment and False Arrest

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

False imprisonment and false arrest are crimes that focus on an individual’s right to freedom and personal liberty. At its core, false imprisonment is the unlawful restraint of a person against their will. This means that someone takes away your freedom to move or leave a place without your consent and without legal authority. False arrest, on the other hand, is a specific type of false imprisonment carried out by someone who falsely claims to have the legal authority to make an arrest, such as a police officer acting without proper justification.

It’s crucial to note that the restraint doesn’t have to be physical—emotional or psychological intimidation can also count. For example, if someone locks you in a room or threatens harm if you try to leave, that can qualify as false imprisonment.

The Harm Legislators Aim to Prevent

The criminal laws against false imprisonment and false arrest seek to uphold several fundamental principles and rights, such as personal liberty, the integrity of the justice system, and public trust in law enforcement agencies. Legislators understand that taking away a person’s freedom unlawfully not only affects the individual but also has ripple effects throughout society.

Firstly, personal liberty is a cornerstone of democratic societies. Being unlawfully restrained can have devastating psychological and emotional consequences, leading to trauma and, in some cases, life-long scars.

Secondly, false arrests can severely damage the integrity of the justice system. When police officers or individuals misuse their power, it erodes public trust, making it more challenging for law enforcement agencies to maintain social order effectively.

Thirdly, these crimes can also enable other criminal activities like kidnapping, assault, or even human trafficking. By criminalizing false imprisonment and false arrest, legislators aim to nip such activities in the bud, setting up a deterrent against the escalation of crime.

Classification in Most Legal Codes

False imprisonment is generally considered a misdemeanor under most legal codes, but this can escalate to a felony if violence or weapons are involved. False arrest, especially when conducted by a person in a position of authority like a police officer, can result in both criminal charges and civil liability for the offender. Penalties can include fines, imprisonment, and in severe cases, disqualification from holding certain jobs.

How Do These Crimes Fit into Broader Categories?

False imprisonment and false arrest fit into the broader category of “crimes against persons,” as they directly impact an individual’s physical and psychological well-being. While not a property crime, the essence of these offenses lies in the “theft” of personal liberty. They don’t generally fit into categories like sexual crimes, though it’s conceivable that false imprisonment could be a precursor to such offenses. Their presence in criminal codes serves as a safeguard against the abuse of power and an affirmation of the sanctity of individual freedom.

Historical Roots of False Imprisonment and False Arrest

False imprisonment has ancient origins, traceable to early legal systems, including Roman law and English common law. The concept was acknowledged in the “Corpus Juris Civilis,” a legal code from the Byzantine Empire, as a civil wrong. In English common law, legal scholars like Blackstone have discussed it at length. William Blackstone, in his seminal work “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” elaborates on false imprisonment as a “private wrong” that can also constitute a public offense.

The writ of habeas corpus, a legal remedy against unlawful detention, dates back to the Magna Carta in 1215. This writ serves as a powerful tool against false imprisonment, emphasizing the value placed on personal liberty.

In the United States, the legal principles surrounding false imprisonment and false arrest are inherited from English common law but have evolved to fit the American context, notably with the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Modern Penal Code Definition of False Imprisonment

The Model Penal Code (MPC) defines false imprisonment under Section 212.2 as follows: “A person commits a misdemeanor if he knowingly restrains another unlawfully so as to interfere substantially with his liberty.” The language here emphasizes several important elements: the act of restraining someone (Actus Reus), doing so knowingly (Mens Rea), and doing it unlawfully. The code goes on to describe that this crime becomes a felony if the person restrained is exposed to bodily injury, or is restrained for a criminal purpose.

In the case of false arrest, while the MPC doesn’t explicitly define it, it is considered a specialized form of false imprisonment where the perpetrator falsely claims to have a legal basis for the detention. In other words, it’s false imprisonment plus the element of impersonating legal authority.

Breaking down the language, “knowingly” means the person must be aware of what they’re doing, “restrains” denotes the act of limiting someone’s freedom, and “unlawfully” signals that the action lacks a legal justification. “Interfering substantially with liberty” drives home the point that the act isn’t minor; it has a serious impact on the person’s freedom.

Defenses in the Penal Code

The Model Penal Code mentions several defenses to false imprisonment. One primary defense is consent, outlined in Section 2.11. If the person being restrained has given their explicit consent for the restraint, then the act may not be unlawful.

Another defense is the notion of “legal authority,” where a law enforcement officer can argue they had a legitimate reason to believe that the person they restrained was about to commit a crime. However, this defense is subject to stringent scrutiny and often requires substantial evidence.

Additionally, Section 3.09 of the MPC outlines the use of force as a justification, but this only applies under very strict conditions such as self-defense or the defense of others. This is an unlikely defense for false imprisonment but remains legally possible.

Summary List of Elements

  1. Mens Rea: The perpetrator must knowingly commit the act.
  2. Actus Reus: The act of restraining another person.
  3. Concurrence: The mental state and the act must occur together.
  4. Attendant Circumstances: The act must be unlawful, or in the case of false arrest, impersonating legal authority.

By understanding the Modern Penal Code’s definitions and possible defenses, you gain a comprehensive view of what constitutes false imprisonment and false arrest. This allows you to better grasp the complexities of these crimes and their treatment in the legal system.

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  08/23/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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