A false arrest is a detention that unlawfully restrains the victim's liberty. Both police and private citizens can be held liable for making a false arrest. Police can be sued for monetary damages by the victim in a civil rights lawsuit. When police make a false arrest, the victim can also file a complaint with the police department. If charged with a crime, the victim can also ask a court to exclude whatever evidence was discovered by way of the arrest.
1. What is an arrest?
An arrest requires 3 things:
- an intentional deprivation of someone else's freedom of movement,
- that deprivation compels the victim to go somewhere or to stay somewhere for an appreciable time, and
- the deprivation was not consensual.1
Most of the time, arrests are conducted by police officers. However, there are times when private citizens initiate arrests.
Example: A store clerk detains a suspected shoplifter.
The use of force is not necessary to initiate an arrest. Arrests can involve anything that compels the victim's movement. This includes:
- fraud, or
If the arrest involves confinement or physical restraint, it does not have to be complete restraint. Victims do not have to be locked in a room with no possibility of escape.3 They do not even need to be aware of their lack of liberty at the time of the confinement.4
2. What is a false arrest?
Similar to unlawful detention, false arrest is an arrest that is made without legal justification. An arrest can be unlawful if the person making the arrest had no legal authority to do so.
Police are not allowed to make arrests on a whim. They must have probable cause or a warrant to arrest someone lawfully.
Arrests can be lawful when they begin, but become unlawful as they progress.
Example: A police officer pulls a car over for a broken taillight. After writing the ticket, the officer tells the driver that they are not allowed to leave until a drug-sniffing dog arrives.
The terms false arrest is often used interchangeably with false imprisonment. A false arrest is just one way of committing a false imprisonment.5
3. Can there be a false arrest if there is a warrant?
An arrest made by a police officer can be unlawful, even if there was a warrant. The arrest can be unlawful if the warrant was invalid.
An arrest warrant can be invalid if:
- it does not name or adequately identify the person to be arrested,
- it does not specify the crime for which the person is being arrested,
- it does not say what court issued the warrant, or
- police lied to a judge to prove they had probable cause for the arrest.
False statements by police have to be integral to the finding of probable cause to invalidate a warrant. If the judge could have found there was probable cause without the false statements, the warrant is still valid.6
Not all invalid warrants lead to false arrests, however. The arresting officer can defend against a false arrest claim by arguing that he or she was acting in good faith. An officer can prove a good faith defense by showing that:
- the arrest warrant appeared to be valid,
- the officer believed the warrant was valid, and
- the officer had a reasonable belief that the warrant was for the person who was arrested.7
4. What are unlawful and warrantless arrests?
Police are allowed to make warrantless arrests. But these arrests must be supported by probable cause. If a police officer did not have sufficient probable cause, the arrest was unlawful. Once the victim shows that they were arrested without a warrant, the officer has to prove that there was probable cause.8
Police can prove that they had probable cause if:
- the suspect commits a crime in the officer's presence, or
- the officer had reasonable cause to believe that the suspect had committed a felony.9
The officer's belief is informed by what the officer knew, at the time of the arrest.10
5. What remedies are there for a victim?
Victims of a false arrest have 4 legal options that they can pursue:
- a complaint against the arresting officer with the police department,
- a motion to suppress whatever evidence was obtained from the false arrest,
- a lawsuit against the officer and department, demanding an injunction, and
- a lawsuit against the officer and department, demanding monetary damages.
By filing a complaint with the police department, a victim can demand the officer face repercussions for their false arrest. In the most egregious cases, the officer could get fired. He or she could also be suspended or retrained. In California, an officer could face criminal charges under Penal Code 118.1 PC or other statutes.
If the victim was charged with a crime, he or she can file a motion to exclude evidence obtained from the false arrest. This motion is filed with the court in the victim's criminal case. Any criminal evidence found because of the arrest can get thrown out.
Victims can also file a lawsuit against the officer and the police department. That lawsuit can be filed in state or federal court. If it is filed in federal court, it would likely be a 1983 civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
Civil lawsuits face the challenge that officers may be protected by qualified immunity.
The lawsuit can demand an injunction for the false arrest. Injunctions are court orders. If successful, the court can require the police department to:
- retrain officers,
- change their official policies for arrests, or
- fire the offending officer.
The lawsuit can also demand monetary damages. Those damages would aim to compensate the victim for the false imprisonment. That compensation would cover:
- medical bills,
- wages lost from the arrest,
- pain and suffering, and
- the violation of the victim's civil rights, also known as presumed damages.
However, recovering monetary damages is difficult. Victims have to overcome the qualified immunity defense. This defense shields government officials, including police officers, from lawsuits filed over conduct done while on duty.
California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1400.
People v. Bamba, 58 Cal.App.4th 1113 (Cal. App. 1997) (“Any exercise of express or implied force which compels another person to remain where he does not wish to remain, or to go where he does not wish to go, is false imprisonment”).
California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1406.
Cervantez v. J.C. Penney Co., 595 P.2d 975 (Cal. 1979). See also California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1401.
California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1402.
Hamilton v. City of San Diego, 217 Cal.App.3d 838 (Cal. App. 1990).