Penal Code § 236 PC defines the California crime of “false imprisonment” as unlawfully restraining, detaining, or confining a person against his or her will. The offense can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony and is punishable by up to three years in jail.
PC 236 defines false imprisonment as
“the unlawful violation of the personal liberty of another.”
- grabbing a spouse by her shoulders during an argument and preventing her from leaving a room.
- locking a person in a closet.
- a police officer arresting and detaining a suspect without a warrant and with no legal authority.
Criminal defense lawyers draw upon several defense strategies to contest false imprisonment charges. Some of these include showing:
- you had the legal authority to restrain the alleged victim,
- the “victim” consented to the imprisonment,
- you were acting in self-defense,
- the shopkeeper’s privilege applies, and/or
- you were exercising your parental rights.
Many violations of California Penal Code Section 236 are charged as misdemeanors. The potential penalties include:
- custody in county jail for up to one year, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.
A prosecutor could charge the crime as a felony if you restrained someone while using violence, menace, fraud or deceit. Felony false imprisonment is punishable by up to three years in jail.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. How does California law define “false imprisonment”?
- 2. What are some common defenses to Penal Code 236 PC?
- 3. What are the penalties?
- 4. Are there related offenses?
- 5. Can I sue someone for false imprisonment?
1. How does California law define “false imprisonment”?
California’s false imprisonment laws set forth two forms of false imprisonment. These include:
- misdemeanor false imprisonment, and
- felony false imprisonment.
A prosecutor must prove the following elements to successfully convict you of misdemeanor false imprisonment:
- you intentionally and unlawfully restrained, detained, or confined a person, and
- your act made that person stay or go somewhere against that person’s will.1
Example: Married couple Patty and Harry are having a fight while in their car. Harry tries to leave but Patty turns on the child’s lock so Harry cannot escape.
This qualifies as misdemeanor false imprisonment because Harry is deprived of his freedom of movement against his will. Even if Patty unlocks the door after a few seconds, she could still face charges for the short time she held Harry in the car against his will.
For felony false imprisonment, a prosecutor must prove the following to secure a conviction:
- you intentionally and unlawfully restrained, confined, or detained someone by violence, menace, fraud, or deceit, and
- you made the other person stay or go somewhere against that person’s will.2
A few definitions here are helpful:
- an act is done “against a person’s will” if that person does not consent to the act. In order to consent, a person must act freely and voluntarily and know the nature of the act.3
- “violence” means using physical force that is greater than the force reasonably necessary to restrain someone. Violence may include forms of domestic violence.4
- “menace” means a verbal or physical threat of harm, including the use of a deadly weapon. The threat of harm may be express or implied.5
Example: Married couple Patty and Harry are having a fight at home. Harry tries to leave, but Patty threatens to shoot him if he does, so Harry stays put. This qualifies as felony false imprisonment because Patty used “menace” to restrain Harry’s liberty.
Note that false imprisonment does not require that the person being restrained be confined in jail or state prison. False imprisonment can occur in any location.
Also note that false imprisonment is a general intent crime. This means that you can be convicted of this crime even if you did not specifically intend to unlawfully confine someone. All that matters is that your intentional actions resulted in the person being unlawfully confined.6
Example: Beth pranks Ben by telling him there was a chemical attack, and they take refuge in Beth’s basement for several hours. Beth never specifically intended to confine Ben against his will, though her lie made Ben think it was unsafe to leave. Therefore, Beth could face charges for false imprisonment.
2. What are some common defenses to Penal Code 236 PC?
You have the right to contest a charge of false imprisonment by raising a legal defense.
Six common defenses include:
- legal authority to restrain.
- shopkeeper’s privilege.
- parental rights.
- false allegations
2.1. Legal authority to restrain
This defense is often raised by police officers or law enforcement personnel in false imprisonment cases involving unlawful arrests and detainments. There can be no false imprisonment if you have the legal authority to restrain another person.
For example, a police officer will not face PC 236 charges if he stops and arrests a person while acting pursuant to a valid arrest warrant.
Sometimes a civilian has the right to restrain another person by making a lawful citizen’s arrest.
It is always a valid defense for you to show that the so-called victim was there voluntarily and consented to be restrained, detained, or confined. Helpful evidence to demonstrate consent may include:
- video or audio recordings,
- written communications (such as text messages or email), and
- eyewitness testimony.
California law allows you to use proportional force in defense of yourself and others if you reasonably believe in good faith that you or others are about to sustain immediate or great bodily injury.
If the victim was threatening to injure themself or commit suicide, you could claim “defense of others” if you confined them to a space where they could not inflict self-harm (and you then contacted help as soon as possible).
2.4. Shopkeeper’s privilege
This defense is available to store owners and shopkeepers that have probable cause that a customer is guilty of shoplifting. The privilege allows you to detain the suspect in order to investigate. The investigation, though, must be carried out
- for a reasonable time and
- in a reasonable manner.7
“Reasonableness” will be determined by the facts of a specific case.
2.5. Parental rights
Parents have the right to discipline their children in ways that restrict their freedom of movement such as
- “grounding” them or
- imposing “timeouts.”
As long as the children do not sustain injuries or undue suffering, you can lawfully confine your children against their will. This is also provided that you are not acting with any criminal or malicious intent.
2.6. False allegations
Perhaps someone is falsely accusing you out of anger, jealousy, revenge, or a misunderstanding. Or perhaps you are a victim of mistaken identity, and the victim incorrectly picked you out of a lineup.
Video and eyewitness evidence would be invaluable for proving you did nothing wrong.
3. What are the penalties?
California Penal Code 237 is the State’s statute that sets forth the penalties for false imprisonment. Under this section, false imprisonment is a type of wobbler offense, meaning that it can be punished as either
- a misdemeanor or
- a felony.
Misdemeanor false imprisonment, which is false imprisonment accomplished without violence or menace, is punishable by:
- a fine not exceeding $1,000, and/or
- imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year.8
False imprisonment will be charged as a felony when the crime is effected by violence, menace, fraud, or deceit.
Felony false imprisonment is punishable by up to three years in jail and up to $10,000.9 The maximum sentence is four years if the victim was :
- an elderly person, or
- a dependent adult.10
Note sentencing enhancements apply to this crime:
Additional prison sentence
|The false imprisonment was done for a criminal street gang’s benefit||4 years to life depending on the circumstances of the case 11|
|A gun was used||10 years 12|
|A gun was discharged||25 years 13|
|The victim was seriously injured by a gun||Life 13|
4. Are there related offenses?
There are seven crimes related to false imprisonment. These are:
- kidnapping – PC 207
- false imprisonment of a hostage to avoid arrest – PC 210.5
- California’s child abduction law – PC 278
- Carjacking – PC 215
- Kidnapping during carjacking – PC 209.5
- Criminal threats – PC 422
- Elder abuse – PC 368
4.1. Kidnapping – PC 207
Per Penal Code 207, kidnapping is the crime where you move a victim a substantial distance, using force or fear to do so.
As with false imprisonment charges, you can contest a kidnapping charge by showing that you acted with the “victim’s” consent.
4.2. False imprisonment of a hostage to avoid arrest – PC 210.5
Per Penal Code 210.5, false imprisonment of a hostage is the crime where you:
- falsely imprison another person to avoid an arrest, and/or
- use another person as a human “shield.”
Unlike with PC 236, charges under PC 210.5 are always filed as felonies. The crime is punishable by up to eight years in jail.
4.3. California’s child abduction law – PC 278
Under Penal Code 278, child abduction is the crime where you maliciously take a child away from their legal guardian when you have no right of custody over the child.
Like false imprisonment, child abduction is a wobbler where a prosecutor can charge it as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
4.4. Carjacking – PC 215
Per Penal Code 215, carjacking is taking a motor vehicle from another person by means of force or fear. This felony carries up to nine years in prison, though the sentence can be higher if you
- injured someone,
- used a gun,
- committed carjacking for the benefit of a gang, or
- kidnapped someone during the carjacking.
4.5. Kidnapping during carjacking – PC 209.5
4.6. Criminal threats – PC 422
Per Penal Code 422, criminal threats is making death threats or threats of great bodily injury meant to – and do – place victims in reasonable and sustained fear for their safety or their family’s safety. Criminal threats can be a misdemeanor or a felony.
4.7. Elder abuse – PC 368
Per Penal Code 368, elder abuse comprises abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation of adults 65 years old or older. As a wobbler, elder abuse can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony.
5. Can I sue someone for false imprisonment?
Yes. While false imprisonment is a criminal offense, it is also a tort under California law that may give rise to a civil lawsuit.
In a civil suit involving false imprisonment, a victim sues the perpetrator to recover damages that a false imprisonment caused.
Possible damages that a plaintiff may recover in these cases include:
- loss of time,
- physical discomfort or inconvenience,
- any resulting physical illness or injury,
- business interruption, and/or
- damage to reputation.15
For additional help…
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense lawyer, we invite you to contact our law firm at the Shouse Law Group. Our attorneys provide both consultations and legal advice you can trust.
Our defense lawyers also represent clients throughout California, including those in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Los Angeles County, Santa Monica, Glendale, Riverside, San Bernardino, Newport Beach, Pasadena, Pomona, Rancho Cucamonga, Torrance, and Orange County.
- CALCRIM No. 1242 – Misdemeanor False Imprisonment. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2020 edition). See also People v. Sherow (2011) 196 Cal.App.4th 1296; People v. Swanson (1983) 142 Cal.App.3d 104; People v. Olivencia (1988) 204 Cal.App.3d 1391; People v. Ross (1988) 205 Cal.App.3d; People v. Whitmore (Cal. App. 4th Dist., 2022), 78 Cal. App. 5th 105; People v. Williams (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2017), 212 Cal. Rptr. 3d 728.
- CALCRIM No. 1240 – Felony False Imprisonment. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2020 edition). See also People v. Agnew (1940) 16 Cal.2d 655. Penal Code 237 PC.
- CALCRIM No. 1242.
- CALCRIM No. 1240. See also People v. Babich (1993) 14 Cal.App.4th 801; People v. Hendrix (1992) 8 Cal.App.4th 1458.
- CALCRIM No. 1240. See also People v. Matian (1995) 35 Cal.App.4th 480; People v. Arvanites (1971) 17 Cal.App.3d 1052.
- CALCRIM No. 1240. See also People v. Haney (1977) 75 Cal.App.3d 308. People v. Fernandez (1994) 26 Cal.App.4th 710.
- Fermino v. Fedco, Inc. 7 Cal. 4th 701 (1994). See also People v. Checketts (1999) 71 Cal.App.4th 1190; People v. Rios (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 445; Parnell v. Superior Court (1981) 119 Cal.App.3d 392.
- Penal Code 237 PC.
- California Penal Code 1170 PC. See also People v. Clark (Cal. App. 4th Dist., 2022), 81 Cal. App. 5th 133.
- See note 8. California Penal Code 368(f) PC.
- California Penal Code 186.22 PC.
- California Penal Code 12022.53 PC.
- See, for example, Scofield v. Critical Air Medicine, Inc., 45 Cal. App. 4th 990 (1996). See also CACI 1400.