Penal Code 236 PC - California "False Imprisonment" Laws

Penal Code 236 PC
is the California statute that defines the crime of false imprisonment. Under this code section, false imprisonment is “the unlawful violation of the personal liberty of another.”1

The commission of the crime means that one person restrains, detains, or confines another person without his/her consent. The crime can be committed with or without force or violence.

Examples of false imprisonment are when:

  • During a heated spousal argument, the husband grabs his wife by the shoulders and prevents her from leaving a room;
  • An employee, while upset with a co-worker on the job, locks the co-worker in a closet; or
  • A police officer arrests and detains a suspect without a warrant and with no legal authority.


California Penal Code 237 PC 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 California misdemeanor or a felony.

If a misdemeanor, false imprisonment is punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000; and/or, a maximum jail term of one year.

If a felony, a judge can sentence a guilty party to a county jail term of 16 months, two years or three years.


Luckily, there are several legal defenses that a person can raise if accused of false imprisonment. These include (but are not limited to):

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

california false imprisonment law attorneys legal defense
Penal Code 236 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of false imprisonment. Under this code section, false imprisonment is “the unlawful violation of the personal liberty of another.”

1. The Legal Definition of False Imprisonment in PC 236

There are five essential elements to the crime of false imprisonment. A prosecutor must prove each element in order to successfully prove that a defendant is guilty of this offense.

The five elements of false imprisonment are:

  1. The defendant intentionally restrained, detained, or confined someone;
  2. The restraint, detention, or confinement forced the victim to stay or go somewhere for some appreciable time, however short;
  3. The victim did not consent;
  4. The victim was actually harmed; and,
  5. The defendant's conduct was a substantial factor in causing the victim's harm.2

The above elements are often condensed into two elements for the sake of simplicity. The two condensed elements are:

  1. The defendant intentionally and unlawfully restrained, detained, or confined another person; and,
  2. The defendant made the person stay or go somewhere against that person's will.

1.1. Meaning of Restrained, Detained or Confined

The first element of false imprisonment is perhaps the most important element a prosecutor must prove. This first element, though, can also serve as a source of confusion.

Luckily, California courts have set forth a few rules that help clarify issues regarding restraining, detaining, or confining a person, under PC 236. For example, in a false imprisonment case, there just has to be some restraint, detention, or confinement.3 It is not necessary that a person has to be locked in a jail or prison.4

There is also not one unique way in which a person can falsely imprison another. California courts have stated there are several ways in which a person can restrain, detain, or confine a person. Examples include:

  • By use of force or the threat of force5
  • Through fraud, deceit, or any unreasonable duress6
  • By use of physical barriers or menace7

Further, there is no requirement that the person being imprisoned has to be aware that he is being restrained, confined, or detained.8

1.2. Criminal vs. Civil False Imprisonment

Penal Code 236 PC makes it a crime in California for one person to falsely imprison another person. False imprisonment, though, is also a tort that gives rise to civil lawsuits.

The definition and elements of the tort of false imprisonment are identical to the crime, as found under PC 236.9 Like the crime of false imprisonment, the civil tort consists of the “nonconsensual, intentional confinement of a person, without lawful privilege, for an applicable length of time, however short.”10

Again, like false imprisonment under PC 236, restraint under the tort of false imprisonment can be accomplished by:

  • Physical force;
  • Threat of force;
  • Confinement by physical barriers;
  • Means of any other form of unreasonable duress.11

A person guilty of the crime of false imprisonment will face criminal penalties. In a civil suit involving false imprisonment, a person sues another party to recover damages that a false imprisonment caused.

Possible damages that a plaintiff may recover in a civil false imprisonment case include:

  • Loss of time;
  • Physical discomfort or inconvenience;
  • Any resulting physical illness or injury;
  • Business interruption; and/or,
  • Damage to reputation.12
police making arrest california false imprisonment legal defense attorneys
There can be no false imprisonment if a person has the legal authority to restrain another person

2. Legal Defenses

A person accused of the crime of false imprisonment can raise a legal defense on his behalf. A good defense can often get a PC 236 charge reduced or even dismissed.

Fortunately, there are a variety of legal defenses that are applicable to California false imprisonment charges. Also, a skilled California criminal defense attorney can present a defense on an accused's behalf. Five common defenses include:

  1. Legal Authority to Restrain
  2. Consent
  3. Self-defense
  4. Shopkeeper's Privilege
  5. Parental Rights

2.1. Legal Authority to Restrain

There can be no false imprisonment if a person has the legal authority to restrain another person. This defense is often raised by police officers or law enforcement personnel in cases involving unlawful arrests and detainments.

Example: The Q & M, a neighborhood quick mart, was robbed on a Saturday night. Phil, unaware of the robbery, was walking two miles away from the Q & M shortly after the crime was committed. Sgt Bailey, a police officer sent to the Q & M, was driving the neighborhood after the robbery looking for suspects. He saw Phil, stopped him, and asked him a few questions. With no warrant, and without either probable cause or reasonable suspicion, Sgt Bailey then arrested Phil and drove him to the police station for questioning. Phil was later released, and no charges were filed.

The above facts would probably give rise to a charge of false imprisonment against Sgt. Bailey. Sgt. Bailey falsely restrained Phil with no legal authority to do so. He did not have an arrest warrant, or, probable cause to arrest.

However, had Sgt. Bailey had the legal authority to arrest and restrain Phil (e.g., via an arrest warrant or probable cause), then Sgt. Bailey would not be subject to a false imprisonment charge.

2.2. Consent

An element to the crime of false imprisonment is that the victim did not consent. Thus, it is a valid defense for a defendant to show that the so-called victim consented to the restraint, detainment or confinement imposed by the defendant.

Helpful evidence to demonstrate consent may include:

  • Video or audio recordings;
  • Written communications (such as text messages or email); and,
  • Eyewitness testimony.

2.3. Self-defense

California law allows people to use proportional force in defense of themselves and others if they reasonably believe they are about to sustain immediate bodily harm. This means self-defense is a valid legal defense to false imprisonment charges involving threats to a person's bodily harm.

Example: Chad is beating his girlfriend Becky in the couple's home. Becky manages to push him away and locks him in a closet while she calls the police. The police arrive, and Chad lies that he never beat Becky. The police believe Chad and arrest Becky for violating PC 236 for locking Chad in the closet. But, if Becky's attorney can show the prosecutor that Chad was lying, and Becky was defending herself from a beating, then the charge should be dropped.

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 (Penal Code 459.5 PC).

The privilege allows these parties to detain the suspect in order to investigate. The investigation, though, must be carried out for a reasonable time and in a reasonable manner.13 “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 don't sustain injuries or undue suffering, a parent confining their children against their will is perfectly legal. This is also provided that the parent is not acting with any criminal or malicious intent.

shopkeepers privilege california false imprisonment laws
Shopkeeper's privilege allows shopkeepers and store owners to detain a suspect in order to investigate.

3. Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing for 236 PC

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 California misdemeanor or a felony.

In addition, any penalties imposed under PC 237 can get enhanced if the false imprisonment victim is either:

  • An elder; or,
  • A dependent adult.

3.1 Misdemeanor False Imprisonment

Under PC 237(a), false imprisonment is charged as a misdemeanor if the commission of the offense was not affected by “violence, menace, fraud, or deceit.”14 A person guilty of misdemeanor false imprisonment could be punished with:

  1. A fine not exceeding $1,000; and/or,
  2. Imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year.15

3.2 Felony False Imprisonment

False imprisonment will be charged as a felony when the crime is “effected by violence, menace, fraud, or deceit.16

If a person is guilty of felony false imprisonment, a judge can sentence him to a county jail term of either:

  • 16 months,
  • Two years, or
  • Three years.17

3.3 Enhanced Penalties with Elder or Dependent Parent Victims

Under Penal Code 237(b):

False imprisonment of an elder or dependent adult by use of violence, menace, fraud, or deceit shall be punishable as described in subdivision (f) of Section 368.

Penal Code 368 (b)(2) states that if an elder or dependent adult suffers great bodily injury, in the commission of false imprisonment, the defendant shall receive an additional prison term of:

  • Three years if the victim is under 70 years of age18
  • Five years if the victim is 70 years of age or older19

Penal Code 368 (b)(3) applies to the situation when:

  1. A defendant commits false imprisonment; and,
  2. In the commission of the false imprisonment, the defendant caused the death of the elder or dependent adult victim.20

In this situation, the defendant shall receive an additional prison term of:

  • Five years if the victim is under 70 years of age21
  • Seven years if the victim is 70 years of age or older22

4. Related Offenses

There are three crimes related to false imprisonment, as set forth in California Penal Code 236. These are:

  1. Kidnapping – Penal Code 208 207 209 209.5
  2. False Imprisonment of a Hostage/to Avoid Arrest – Penal Code 210.5
  3. California's Child Abduction Law – Penal Code 278

4.1 Kidnapping – Penal Code 207 208 209 209.5

California Penal Codes 207 et seq. make kidnapping a crime in California.

"Kidnapping" is moving a victim a substantial distance, using force or fear to do so.

A person violates California's kidnapping laws, found under Penal Code 207, 208, 209 and 209.5 PC, when he:

  1. Moves another person,
  2. A substantial distance,
  3. Without that person's consent, and
  4. By using force or fear.

"Force or fear" means:

  • That you actually inflict physical force upon the alleged victim, or
  • That you threaten to inflict imminent physical harm.

If you move another person and

  • Use force, fear or fraud upon a victim who is a child under 14 years of age,
  • Accompany the kidnapping with a demand for ransom,
  • Cause the victim to suffer serious bodily harm or death,
  • Kidnap another person while you are violating Penal Code 215 PC (California's carjacking law), or
  • Violate a number of other laws that relate to kidnapping,

the offense elevates to aggravated kidnapping. Aggravated kidnapping is a more serious charge, a conviction for which carries life in prison.

"Simple" kidnapping is a felony, subjecting you to up to 8 years in the California state prison. Aggravated kidnapping, also a felony, carries a sentence of five years to life, depending on the facts of the case. And because kidnapping is a strike under California's three strikes law, you must serve at least 85% of your sentence before you are eligible for release.

4.2 False Imprisonment of a Hostage/to Avoid Arrest – Penal Code 210.5

PC 210.5 is the crime of using a hostage to try to avoid arrest or capture.

Penal Code 210.5 PC is the California law that prohibits false imprisonment of a hostage. This crime is also sometimes referred to as false imprisonment to protect against arrest.

A defendant violates this law by:

  1. Falsely imprisoning another person to avoid an arrest, and/or
  2. Using another person as a human "shield”

when that false imprisonment substantially increases the risk of harm to that person.

Penal Code 210.5 PC is a felony. If you are convicted of this offense, you face three, five or eight years in county jail. And, depending on the circumstances, you may face additional charges and penalties for a variety of related offenses such as

  • Battery,
  • Kidnapping, and
  • Possibly even murder if a hostage is killed.

4.3 California's Child Abduction Law – Penal Code 278

Penal Code 278 defines the California crime of "child abduction." The offense is also commonly known as "child stealing" or "detainment or concealment of a child from a legal custodian."

A person violates PC 278 if he maliciously takes a child away from his/her legal guardian when he has no right of custody over the child. A person has a "right of custody" over a child (i.e., physical care, custody and control of a child) if he:

  1. Is the parent of the child and has not had his rights restricted or revoked by the court, or
  2. Has received a court custody order.

Child abduction doesn't require that you move or transport the child, only that you intend to detain or conceal the child from his/her legal custodian.

Penal Code 278 PC is a wobbler, which means that prosecutors may charge the offense as either a misdemeanor or a felony. If convicted as a misdemeanor, a defendant faces up to one year in a county jail and a maximum $1,000 fine.

If convicted as a felony, a defendant faces up to four years in the California state prison and a maximum $10,000 fine. In addition, the defendant will have to reimburse the victim and/or prosecuting agency for any reasonable costs they incurred for attempting to locate and return the child.

Were you accused of false imprisonment in California? Call us for help…

california false imprisonment legal defense attorneys
Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you or someone you know has been accused of false imprisonment, per Penal Code 236, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LAWFIRM. We also invite you to see our articles on Colorado false imprisonment laws (CRS 18-3-303) and Nevada false imprisonment laws (NRS 200.460).

Legal References:

  1. California Penal Code 236 PC

  2. 1 CACI 1400.

  3. People v. Bamba, 58 Cal. App. 4th 1113 (1997).

  4. See same.

  5. Scofield v. Critical Air Medicine, Inc., 45 Cal. App. 4th 990 (1996).

  6. See same

  7. 1 CACI 1400.

  8. See same.

  9. Fermino v. Fedco, Inc. 7 Cal. 4th 701 (1994).

  10. See same.

  11. See same.

  12. See Schofield above.

  13. See Fermino above.

  14. California Penal Code 237 PC. The following definitions are useful:

    Violence means using physical force that is greater than the force reasonably necessary to restrain someone.

    Menace is a verbal or physical threat of harm.

    Fraud and deceit are both similar acts that aim to cheat, trick, or mislead someone by concealing or misrepresenting the truth.

  15. Penal Code 237 PC.

  16. See same.

  17. California Penal Code 1170(g)(h)(1) PC.

  18. California Penal Code 368(b)(2)(A) PC.

  19. California Penal Code 368(b)(2)(B) PC.

  20. California Penal Code 368(b)(3) PC.

  21. California Penal Code 368(b)(3)(A) PC.

  22. California Penal Code 368(b)(3)(B) PC.

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