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What is false imprisonment?

When you think of the term “false imprisonment” in New York or anywhere else, probably the first thing that comes to your mind is misconduct by law enforcement officials. While you are right that false arrest and imprisonment are one way in which police officers can exceed their authority, it may surprise you to know that false imprisonment also can occur between and among civilians.

At its core, false imprisonment means that someone unlawfully confines you against your will. It could be a law enforcement officer, someone posing as one, a security guard or a civilian. While physical force often is part of a false imprisonment, only the threat of force is required. Additionally, false imprisonment can occur by means of physical barriers, such as a locked door, or through psychological duress, such as someone threatening to harm your family if you do not remain where you are. As long as you have a reasonable belief that you cannot leave, that is sufficient for false imprisonment.

Civil rights violation

If a law enforcement official falsely arrests and imprisons you, (s)he has violated your civil rights. Under Title 42, Section 1983 of the United States Code, such behavior on the part of a governmental official violates your constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, including the seizure of your body.

The purpose of civil rights laws is to protect you from governmental abuses. To constitute a legal arrest and detainment, a law enforcement officer needs probable cause; i.e., the knowledge of sufficient facts that allow him, her, or any reasonable person to believe that you are committing, about to commit, or have committed a crime.

If you and your attorney can prove that the law enforcement officer did not have probable cause to arrest you, you can collect monetary damages from him or her, or more likely, from the agency for which (s)he works. Such damages can include not only compensatory damages, but also punitive damages and attorney fees.

Recent New York-related case

A recent civil rights case involving a New York man ended with him receiving $150,000 in damages from the Pennsylvania State Police. A Brooklyn man drove to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to visit his mother. On the way there, two Pennsylvania troopers pulled him over and accused him of driving drunk and having drugs in his car. Despite his denial, a negative Breathalyzer test and a successful field sobriety test, law enforcement illegally searched his car; no evidence of drunk driving or drug possession came to light. Nevertheless, the troopers arrested him and took him to jail.

He remained in jail for five months while awaiting trial. During this time he lost his job, his apartment and his car. At trial, the judge acquitted him of all charges because the state had no evidence to back up the charges. He filed a civil rights suit shortly thereafter.

Cases such as this one are a reminder that governments are not all-powerful. If officers arrest you, do not “mouth off” to them and do not attempt to escape, even if you know that you are innocent. Once they arrest you, they must inform you of your Miranda rights, including the right to an attorney. Work with him or her. You may have a legitimate Section 1983 civil rights case.

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Sivin & Miller, LLP Attorneys at Law
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