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Law School Help: Criminal – False Imprisonment

In today’s installment of my “Law School Help” series, I’m going to go over the California crime of False Imprisonment. As with my other posts in this series, my intent is to basically translate terms (e.g. specific criminal offenses) that the average layperson might have heard before into specific code sections that can be googled. If you’re a law school student, hopefully these posts provide you a more real-world or practical perspective of the subjects you’re learning about in the abstract/theoretical environment of your classroom.

For completeness, California also has a civil cause of action for False Imprisonment (i.e. where the victim can sue the perpetrator for money). I wrote a post about the California civil cause of action in 2017. You can view that here. New York also has a civil cause of action for False Imprisonment. I wrote about that in 2017 as well. You can view that here.

Anyway, that said, the underlying crime of False Imprisonment in California is defined in Section 236 of the California Penal Code. Section 236 is surprisingly short and says:

“False imprisonment is the unlawful violation of the personal liberty of another.”

Thus when it comes to elements or criteria, the underlying basic or vanilla offense of False Imprisonment involves:

  • Defendant intentionally and unlawfully restraining, detaining, or confining a person, and
  • Defendant’s action caused the victim to stay or go somewhere against their will

The possible sentences for False Imprisonment are described in Section 237 of the California Penal Code, which states the following:

“(a) False imprisonment is punishable by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year, or by both that fine and imprisonment. If the false imprisonment be effected by violence, menace, fraud, or deceit, it shall be punishable by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.

(b) False imprisonment of an elder or dependent adult by use of violence, menace, fraud, or deceit shall be punishable as described in subdivision (f) of Section 368.”

Based on Section 237(a), False Imprisonment can be either a misdemeanor — due to the “imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year” piece — or as a felony, if accomplished by “violence, menace, fraud, or deceit”. If that is the case, then False Imprisonment is chargeable as a felony and the sentence is determined by Section 1170(h) of the California Penal Code. Section 1170(h) is quite involved so I encourage you to read it versus relying on just my summary of it. A common sentence under Section 1170(h)(1), though, is a county jail term of either 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years, depending on the facts of the case.

The terms “violence” and “menace” have specific definitions in the context of False Imprisonment due to a case called People v. Babich (1993) 14 Cal.App.4th 801, 806. Babich defines violence as “the exercise of physical force used to restrain over and above the force reasonably necessary to effect such restraint.” Menace is defined in Babich as “a threat of harm express or implied by word or act”.

False Imprisonment of a Hostage
Lastly, I’ll also mention here that California has a special flavor of criminal False Imprisonment known as “False Imprisonment of a Hostage” under Section 210.5 of the Penal Code. Section 210.5 says the following:

“Every person who commits the offense of false imprisonment, as defined in Section 236, against a person for purposes of protection from arrest, which substantially increases the risk of harm to the victim, or for purposes of using the person as a shield is punishable by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 for three, five, or eight years.”

In layperson terms, what this means is that it is a felony if you try to run from the police **AND** take a hostage in the process of doing so. The hostage must also either be put in harm’s way or be used by the defendant as a human shield to prevent the arrest. If this happens, then the sentence under Section 1170(h) of the Penal Code is 3, 5, or 8 years in county jail.

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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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