What Is False Imprisonment?

Under New Jersey law, false imprisonment is the restraint of another person as to interfere substantially with his or her liberty. Like other intentional torts, false imprisonment is both a crime and a tort (i.e. a civil violation). As such, you are able to press charges as well as pursue civil damages.

To most people, “false imprisonment” will bring physical restraint to mind (i.e. forcing someone into a room and locking the door). However, physical force is not necessarily involved; verbal orders, lies, and threats of violence or arrest are enough to constitute false imprisonment. As long as the victim believes they are unable to leave for fear of arrest or violence, he or she could have experienced false imprisonment.

Situations of false imprisonment or unlawful detention often involve authority figures, including:

  • Security guards investigating shoplifting
  • Police officers conducting an investigation
  • Police conducting a traffic stop
  • Airport security investigating terrorism
  • Agents conducting deportation proceedings

A significant share of false imprisonment cases are made against security officers. Security officers (such as the ones at malls or retail stores) do not have the full power of arrest like law enforcement officers do. However, they do undergo security training and state registration, and police officers tend to take their requests for arrest seriously.

Security guards are allowed to detain someone on suspicion of shoplifting under New Jersey law. But in order to do so, the security officer must:

  • Have probable cause: To ensure probable cause, the officer must see the person approach the merchandise, see the person select the merchandise, see the person carry the merchandise away, continue to watch the person, see the person fail to pay for it, and approach the person outside the store. (Some have claimed that a suspected shoplifter can be approached inside the store so long as they are beyond the cash registers, but this typically makes it more difficult to prove that shoplifting was actually taking place.)
  • Not detain you for an unreasonable time: It is the security officer’s responsibility to identify the stolen merchandise, locate it, and contact the police within a reasonable time frame. A suspected shoplifter cannot be forced to wait for hours and hours.
  • Detain you in a reasonable manner: Security officers are not allowed to subject the suspected shoplifter to unreasonable conditions, including unnecessary roughness, unreasonable use of force, and intentionally inappropriate building conditions (i.e. extreme heat, total darkness, etc.)


Proving false imprisonment on the part of a police officer is typically a more difficult undertaking. As long as the officer had probable cause to detain you, the officer will not be found liable for false arrest or false imprisonment—even if the initial information used to detain you was incorrect. However, if the officer did not have probable cause to detain you, there could be grounds for a false imprisonment case.

But in many cases, defining probable cause can be tricky. In order to have probable cause, the police officer must have a suspicion based on circumstances sufficient enough to convince a reasonable person you are guilty of a crime. To put it another way, a police officer must have a substantial and reasonable reason for stopping you in the first place.