The definition of false imprisonment is the unlawful restraint of someone that affects the person’s freedom of movement.
California Penal Code § 236 defines the crime as follows: False imprisonment is the unlawful violation of the personal liberty of another. The penalty for false imprisonment in California is up to 3 years in state prison, and an even longer sentence if someone is injured.
False imprisonment usually involves confining a person within fixed boundries like an office or room. Both the threat of being physically confined and actually being physically confined can be considered false imprisonment if the customer is not free to leave. Uniformed security officers sometimes give the impression that they are operating under some color of authority and that customers must comply with their demands. The laws vary based on the jurisdiction and a situation may dictate what is reasonable cause or restraint or confinement, under the circumstances.
False Imprisonment Elements
The elements of this crime are that the restraint or confinement must be unlawful and actually restrict the person’s freedom of movement. Detaining and handcuffing a customer and transporting them to some backroom without reasonable cause could obviously be considered false imprisonment. Less obvious false imprisonment is when a store manager or security officer direct a customer to go to a bounded area to question them about a suspicious credit card or check transaction without reasonable cause and they believe that they are not free to leave.
Some retailers misinterpret the state merchants’ statute and believe they can detain a customer for almost any rule infraction while they collect the person’s identification, fill out trespass forms, or take their photograph. For example, detaining a customer in an office for refusing to stop for an exit bag check or after a door sensor (EAS) alarm could be deemed as false imprisonment without reasonable cause to suspect that they had stolen anything.
Consent is a Defense
If a customer consents to an exit bag check or to a meeting in the manager’s office, it is not considered false imprisonment unless that consent is later revoked by the customer. For example, that voluntary meeting can change to confinement if the exit to the room is repeatedly blocked by the store manager who wants to keep the customer detained until police arrive. A customer must always be free to go unless lawfully detained.
Employees Falsely Imprisoned
Employees can be falsely imprisoned too if during a suspicion of theft interview turns into an interrogation and they are prevented from leaving the room. Denying simple employee requests to use the bathroom, to get water, or make a phone call could be construed as imprisonment especially if they are not being charged with any crime. It could also be considered false imprisonment if the employee interrogation continues for an excessively long period of time under the veiled threat of being arrested if they don’t confess to the loss.