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What Is False Imprisonment In North Carolina?

Although most personal injury claims arise under a theory of negligence, in some cases, a personal injury claim can be brought under the theory of an intentional wrong. Intentional wrongs can include a suit for battery, when someone hits you, or when a store detective wrongly detains you for allegedly shoplifting—this is called false imprisonment.

In North Carolina, false imprisonment is the illegal restraint of a person against his or her will. Fundamentally, a cause of action for false imprisonment is based on the deprivation of one’s liberty without any legal process. As such, the essential elements under this theory include: (1) the illegal restraint of a person, (2) by force or threat of force, and (3) without the other person’s consent (or against their will). In other words, the defendant intentionally and unlawfully restrains or detains the plaintiff without his or her consent.

Unlike most personal injury claims, which are based on a theory of negligence (accidental or lack of due care), an intentional tort such as false imprisonment, requires an element of “intent.” It follows, the illegal and unlawful restrain of a person against his or her will implies deliberateness. Therefore, a plaintiff must show that the defendant deliberately intended to restrain the plaintiff. For example, a sheriff and other county employees who held an arrestee against his will after the release and sentencing order in a civil contempt proceeding were not liable for false imprisonment because the arrestee’s release date, as set forth in the release and sentencing order, was ambiguous, and thus, the sheriff did not deliberately disregard a clear mandate. Therefore, the element of “intent” was not met as required in a false imprisonment claim.

Along with the element of intent, a false imprisonment claim requires that the detention, restraint or confinement, be unlawful. A detention is unlawful unless it is authorized by law. Lawful arrests include: a detention pursuant to an arrest by a law enforcement officer acting under a valid warrant, a detention by a law enforcement officer making an arrest without a warrant for an offense committed in his presence, and an arrest by a law enforcement officer made upon reasonable grounds for believing the individual being arrested committed an offense outside his presence. In contrast, examples of an unlawful detention include: someone being taken hostage during a bank robbery, the detention of a customer by a business owner (e.g., hotel operator, apartment owner, credit card company) for failure to pay a bill, or a robber in a home invasion who ties a hostage up and takes them in a separate room.

In most jurisdictions, including North Carolina, a merchant, the merchant’s agent or employee, or peace officer, can detain a suspected shoplifter on store premises for a reasonable period of time if the merchant reasonably believes the detainee committed, or attempted to commit, theft of store property. Under N.C.G.S.§14-72.1, this is called the Shopkeeper’s Privilege. Under the shopkeeper’s privilege, the merchant or his employee, or agent, can ask the suspect questions to demonstrate that he or she has, or has not, committed the act of shoplifting. The purpose of the shopkeeper’s privilege is to discover if the suspect shoplifted, and if so, to reclaim the item. This privilege, however, is not as broad as that of a police officer’s. Therefore, the merchant may only detain the suspect for a relatively short period of time. In addition to the temporal element (reasonable period of time) of the shopkeeper’s privilege, the detainment must be conducted on store’s premises, there must be reasonable cause to believe a shoplifting was occurring or did occur, and only reasonable force can be used (non-excessive) to detain the suspect.

In one instance, a finding of false imprisonment was proper when the evidence supported the contention that the plaintiff was intimidated into staying in the store for nearly an hour by repeated threats of the manager to arrest him. The plaintiff reasonably believed the arrest was within the manager’s authority because of the presence of a police officer during the encounter. The plaintiff made several offers to prove that his purchase was legitimate, however, each offer was rebuffed by the store manager. Eventually, after seventy-five minutes, the officer took the plaintiff out to his vehicle and he left the premises. West v. King’s Dept. Store, INC., 365 S.E.2d 621 (1988).

One particular point of contention is the use of force. An illegal restraint of a person against his or her will can be committed by words alone, acts alone, or both. Therefore, it is not necessary that the individual be actually confined or assaulted, or even that he or she be touched in any way. For purposes of false imprisonment, the exercise of force can be through the threat of force, express or implied, to deprive a person of his or her liberty by compelling them to remain where he or she does not voluntarily wish to remain. This includes compelling someone to go somewhere they do not wish to go. A person cannot simply claim he or she was held against their will. There must be a reasonable apprehension that force will be used against them if he or she does not submit. Therefore, a hospital patient who was told by the manager of the hospital that she could not go home until the bill was paid was not subject to false imprisonment because the woman subsequently left the hospital in the hospital wheelchair without restraint by word or act.

False imprisonment can occur in a variety of different ways, all of which can result in damages that entitle you to compensation. Some scenarios of false imprisonment include the following:

  • Being detained by law enforcement after being deemed innocent.
  • An individual strong gripping another or through threat of violence, and refusing to let him or her go.
  • An employer preventing an employee from leaving the premises by locking the door.
  • School faculty and/or personnel refusing to let a student leave.
  • Hospital employees preventing to let a patient leave without paying.

Although a short list, any one of the events above can result in psychological trauma and physical injuries. You may be entitled to pursue compensation for damages relating to false imprisonment—such as, medical bills related to an injury, psychological trauma from the imprisonment, lost wages, and other miscellaneous damages you suffered.

If you or a loved one believes they have been falsely imprisoned please contact us.  You will speak directly with a personal injury attorney who can best answer your questions.  There is no cost for the initial consultation.

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