False Imprisonment

False imprisonment is the unlawful confinement or restraint of a person, directly or indirectly, by force or by the threat or appearance of force that person is aware of or by which that person is harmed. Stated another way, a defendant is subject to liability for false imprisonment if he or she intends to confine another within fixed boundaries, the defendant’s acts directly or indirectly results in such a confinement of the other person, and that person is conscious of the confinement or is harmed by it.

To establish a case of false imprisonment, the plaintiff must show the following:

  • An act directly or indirectly causing confinement;
  • Awareness of the confinement or harm caused by it; and
  • Intent.

The imprisoned person may recover damages for physical injury as well as emotional distress, such as indignity, humiliation, shame, anguish, and other mental suffering. Further, because false imprisonment is an intentional tort, the imprisoned person may recover nominal damages without proving actual injury.

The most common causes of action for false imprisonment arise in the context of persons being detained who are suspected of shoplifting and persons alleging a false or wrongful arrest. In such instances, the burden is on the defendant to justify restraint of the other’s liberty.

Shopkeeper’s privilege—False Imprisonment

M.G.L. 231, § 94B allows a merchant or innkeeper to detain a person for questioning for a reasonable length of time and in a reasonable manner if the shopkeeper has reasonable grounds to believe the person is committing or attempting to commit larceny of goods for sale on the premises or larceny of the personal property of persons on the premises, or, in other words, take the merchandise of the shopkeeper without payment. “Reasonable grounds” is synonymous with “probable cause.” The shopkeeper may only detain a person if he or she, using ordinary caution and prudence, believes or entertains an honest and strong suspicion, that the detained person is guilty of taking goods without payment.


Officers of the law and, in limited circumstances, private individuals have the power to arrest others. A wrongful arrest, accompanied by confinement, may give rise to a claim for false imprisonment. The burden of justifying the arrest is on the defendant.

Generally, a police officer is entitled to make an arrest without a warrant if he or she reasonably believes the arrested individual has committed a felony. The officer does not need to establish that a felony was actually committed. The arrest is privileged on a showing of probable cause. In addition, an officer may make an arrest without a warrant for a misdemeanor that involves a breach of peace committed in the officer’s presence. Similarly, a showing of probable cause is a defense in an action against him or her for false arrest.

If an arrest by an officer of the law is made pursuant to a warrant, the officer is permitted to rely on the warrant if it appears proper and valid on its face. The officer will, however, be liable if he or she arrests someone other than the person named. Officers may also be liable when they do not arrest an individual, but detain or place that person in protective custody without proper legal process.

The right of a private person to make an arrest is more limited than the right of an officer of the law. A private citizen is privileged to arrest only in cases of actual guilt. The arrest can be justified only by proving the person’s guilt.

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