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 have illegally arrested someone, 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 (citizen’s arrest), such as security guards.
Example: A store clerk detains a suspect for shoplifting.
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, falsely arresting someone is restraining someone without legal justification. Arresting can be unlawful if the arrestor had no legal authority to do so.
Law enforcement officers do not have the legal right to make arrests on a whim. They must have probable cause or a warrant to arrest someone lawfully.
Arresting can be lawful when it begins, but becomes unlawful as it progresses.
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. This is a false arrest case because there is unlawful restraint on the driver’s freedom.
The terms false arrest is often used interchangeably with false imprisonment. One is just one way of committing the other. Some false arrests occur with police brutality, and some do not.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. Arresting 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 arresting.
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 wrongful arresting, 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 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 he/she was 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 arresting. 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 false arrest lawsuit against the officer and the police department for civil rights violations. That lawsuit can be filed in state or federal court in the United States. 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 false arrest lawsuit can demand an injunction, which are court orders. If successful, the court can require the police department to:
- retrain officers,
- change their official policies for arresting, or
- fire the offending officer.
The lawsuit can also demand monetary damages. Those damages would aim to compensate the victim for false imprisonment. A personal injury attorney can help win compensation to cover:
- medical bills,
- wages lost,
- pain and suffering (mental distress), and
- the violation of the victim’s civil rights, also known as presumed damages.
However, recovering monetary damages – particularly punitive 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.
6. What is the law in California?
In order to prevail on a California claim for false arrest, the plaintiff (victim) would need to prove the following elements:
- The defendant (police officer) arrested the plaintiff without a warrant or with an invalid warrant;
- The plaintiff was actually harmed; and
- The defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor causing the plaintiff’s harm.11
Once a plaintiff alleges that the defendant arrested him/her without legal process, the burden rests on the defendant to justify the lawfulness of the arrest.12 Common defenses that defendants raise are that they had probable cause to make an arrest, or that they had a good faith belief that the arrest warrant was valid.13
Defendants will likely claim that qualified immunity protects them from false arrest lawsuits, though the statute is unclear whether qualified immunity applies to false arrests.14 But as long as plaintiffs can show that defendants violated a clear constitutional right, qualified immunity does not apply – and the defendants can be sued.15
Plaintiffs bringing a false arrest lawsuit can sue for monetary damages to cover the costs of any medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and any other out-of-pocket costs. In most cases involving police officers, their police department pays any civil damages.16
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1400.
- People v. Bamba, (1997) 58 Cal.App.4th 1113 (“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 [under state law]”).
- Scofield v. Critical Air Medicine, (1996) Inc., 45 Cal.App.4th 990.
- Collins v. City and County of San Francisco, (1975) 50 Cal.App.3d 671.
- Franks v. Delaware, (1978) 438 U.S. 154.
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1406.
- Cervantez v. J.C. Penney Co., 595 P.2d 975 (California Supreme Court, 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).
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1401 & 1403.
- Kaufman v. Brown, (1949) 93 Cal. App. 2d 508, 209 P.2d 156.
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1402 & 1406.
- Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232 (1974).
- Harlow v. Fitzgerald, (1982) 457 U.S. 800.
- California Government Code § 825(a).