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.
- 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 or menace. 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
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 or menace, 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
Note that false imprisonment does not require that the person restrained be confined in jail or state prison.6
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.
Five common defenses include:
- legal authority to restrain.
- shopkeeper’s privilege.
- parental rights.
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 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 you are about to sustain immediate or great bodily injury. This means self-defense is a valid legal defense to false imprisonment charges involving threats to your bodily harm.
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.
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 affected by violence or menace. Felony false imprisonment is punishable by up to three years in jail. 9
Note sentencing enhancements do apply to this crime. This means that any of the above penalties can get enhanced if a false imprisonment victim is either:
- an elder person, or
- a dependent adult.
4. Are there related offenses?
There are three crimes related to false imprisonment. These are:
- kidnapping – PC 207,
- false imprisonment of a hostage to avoid arrest – PC 210.5, and
- California’s child abduction law – PC 278.
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.
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.10
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. Fernandez (1994) 26 Cal.App.4th 710; 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.
- 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.
- 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, for example, Scofield v. Critical Air Medicine, Inc., 45 Cal. App. 4th 990 (1996). See also CACI 1400.