False Imprisonment in California Torts

This post continues our tour through California tort law. Last time, I went over civil battery which is basically the defendant causing or committing some sort of harmful or offensive contact on the plaintiff without consent and resulting in injury. I’ve also blogged about battery as a criminal offense in California. This time, we’re going to go over false imprisonment which, unfortunately, can have several different definitions and criteria depending on the facts of the situation.

The simplest definition is, in essence, that false imprisonment is when a defendant acts without lawful authority and restricts a plaintiff’s freedom of movement for some appreciable amount of time.  Scofield v. Critical Air Medicine, Inc. (1996) 45 Cal.App.4th 990, 1006. Defendant locking plaintiff in a room against plaintiff’s will, for instance, would qualify.

Incidentally, false imprisonment is also a crime in California under California Penal Code section 236. The criminal definition and the simplest civil definition are identical.

The civil definition gets more nuanced if you add in facts such as (1) was the imprisonment due to an arrest or not? (2) if there was an arrest, was it by a California Peace Officer or not? (3) if there was an arrest, was it with a warrant or not? If you’re interested, California defines the term “peace officer” in California Penal Code section 830.

Given that some of these permutations don’t make sense (e.g. a private citizen won’t arrest you with a warrant, etc), there’s only three realistic possibilities:

#1 – With Arrest by a Peace Officer With a Warrant
If an officer has a warrant for your arrest, it does not necessarily mean that the officer has the authority to arrest you. The precise reasons why require more explanation than I can provide in this post, but they have to do with things like facts that should have made it obvious to the officer that the warrant was facially invalid. 

The idea that an arrest warrant can be invalid is important because it is one of the criteria you have to prove to sue for false imprisonment. Because it is one of the elements plaintiff has to prove, it is also one of the defenses that a defendant peace officer can possibly use. The other elements are similar to the ones from the simplest situation discussed previously:

  • The defendant peace officer either arrested the plaintiff or intentionally caused plaintiff to be arrested;
  • The plaintiff was actually harmed as a result of said arrest;
  • The defendant peace officer’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s harm.

If you’re interested in the facial invalidity of arrest warrants, you can read about them in a case called Allison v. County of Ventura (1977) 68 Cal. App. 3d 689 as well as Lopez v. City of Oxnard (1989) 207 Cal.App.3d 1.

#2 – With Arrest by a Peace Office Without a Warrant
If there was an arrest by a peace officer acting without an arrest warrant, there is a case called Cervantes v. JC Penney Co. (1979) 24 Cal.3d 579 that defines the criteria as:

  • The defendant peace officer arrested the plaintiff without a warrant;
  • That plaintiff was actually harmed by the arrest;
  • That defendant peace officer’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing that harm.

A suit like this has a big gaping hole in it — namely, that the defendant peace officer can defeat it by showing he or she had probable cause to believe that plaintiff had committed a crime. There are many, many, many court cases that hold that peace officers do not have to have a warrant in order to arrest someone. If you’re in California, this right to arrest without a warrant is also provided for by California Penal Code section 836.

#3 – With Arrest by a Private Citizen Without a Warrant
This is the “citizen’s arrest” situation that you’ve probably seen on television and in the movies. A citizen’s arrest — see California Penal Code section 837 — doesn’t actually require the citizen to forcibly restrain or detain a suspect. Calling the police, reporting the offense, and identifying the suspect is sufficient. Johanson v. Dept of Motor Vehicles (1995) 36 Cal.App.4th 1209.

The criteria for false imprisonment resulting from a citizen’s arrest are:

  • The defendant (i.e. the person who called the police) intentionally caused the plaintiff to be arrested without a warrant;
  • The plaintiff was actually harmed by the arrest;
  • The defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s harm.

Some of you might be thinking that these criteria would penalize any Good Samaritan or witness to a crime who wants to do the right thing by calling the police. Thankfully, though, there is a very large loophole here and it is, again, our good friend probable cause. Phrased very roughly, if plaintiff can prove that defendant committed a crime, causing the defendant to be arrested (e.g. calling the police, pointing out the suspect, etc) is permissible.

False imprisonment also exists in what I would hope would be the rare circumstance where a criminal suspect is arrested, but not arraigned until an unreasonable or unnecessary amount of time has passed. This kind of false imprisonment suit has the following elements:

  • Defendant held plaintiff in custody;
  • There was an unnecessary or unreasonable delay in handling the plaintiff (e.g. arraigning plaintiff before a judge, releasing plaintiff from custody, etc);
  • Plaintiff did not consent to said delay;
  • Plaintiff was actually harmed by the delay;
  • Defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s harm.

Lastly, a key component of any false imprisonment lawsuit is the claim that the defendant acted without the legal authority or justification to do so. When I was in law school, I learned the defense of Shopkeeper’s Privilege which, in a nutshell, allows the owner of a business to detain someone for the purposes of conducting a shoplifting investigation. The manner in which this detention is done is very important. In California, there’s a case called Fermino v. Fedco, Inc. (1994) 7 Cal.4th 701 that goes over Shopkeeper’s Privilege.

I also have a video on it on my Youtube channel:

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.

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