A University of South Carolina professor’s jury verdict of over $200,000 for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution was upheld by the SC Court of Appeals in Hassell v. City of Columbia on July 1, 2020.
The professor was wrongfully arrested for DUI although he looked sober on the Datamaster room video (the officer “lost” the roadside video), blew a .00 on the breathalyzer, and provided a urine sample that was to be tested for drugs (the officer also “lost” the urine sample). After the bogus charges were dismissed, he was awarded $200,075 by a jury for false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and negligent supervision.
The City of Columbia then appealed the jury’s verdict, arguing that the trial court should have granted them a new trial based on one juror’s failure to disclose a prior arrest by the City of Columbia – information that was contained in the City’s own files, was provided to the City by the Clerk of Court, and was a matter of public record before the trial began…
The SC Court of Appeals denied the City’s appeal and upheld the verdict.
What is False Imprisonment?
False imprisonment is a tort – a “cause of action” in civil court. Like negligence, wrongful death, or other causes of action, a person who has been subjected to false imprisonment is entitled to monetary damages from the person (or company, or government agency) that caused the harm.
False imprisonment is when someone confines or restrains the plaintiff, or causes the plaintiff to be confined or restrained, without the plaintiff’s consent and without the authority of law.
False imprisonment can be a cause of action against anyone if they intentionally restrict your freedom of movement without your consent and without the authority of law. For example:
- Locking you in a room or building;
- Physically restraining you;
- Blocking you in with a vehicle;
- Threatening physically injury if you attempt to leave; or
- Illegal detention by a police officer or other government agent.
When a police officer arrests a person without a valid warrant or probable cause, like what happened to the USC professor in Hassell v. City of Columbia, that is false imprisonment.
False Imprisonment – Invalid Use of Legal Authority
The most common type of false imprisonment case is where a police officer arrests someone, or detains them, without a valid warrant or probable cause. Although police have the authority to detain and arrest people, it is an abuse of their authority to detain or arrest someone without probable cause.
It doesn’t matter if the officer briefly detains a person without legal justification or if the officer arrests them and puts them in jail for an extended period of time – if there is no justification for the detention, it is false imprisonment and a violation of the person’s civil rights:
An example of an invalid use of legal authority is the detainment or arrest of a person without a warrant, with an illegal warrant, or with a warrant illegally executed. So long as the person is deprived of his personal liberty, the amount of time actually detained is inconsequential. See, e.g. Schenck v. Pro Choice Network, 519 U.S. 357 (1997).
False Imprisonment for Shoplifting
One of the most common types of false imprisonment cases is where an overaggressive loss prevention employee detains someone in their store without probable cause, often resulting in an arrest by law enforcement – also without probable cause.
In many cases, store owners or loss prevention employees are covered by the “shopkeeper’s privilege” – if a store owner or employee reasonably believes that someone has stolen something or is attempting to steal something from their store, they have the right to detain the person for a reasonable amount of time to investigate:
One of the affirmative defenses to the false imprisonment tort is called the shopkeeper’s privilege defense. in this situation, a defendant store-owner has detained the plaintiff because the defendant believed that the plaintiff has stolen or is attempting to steal an item from the defendant. The doctrine of shopkeeper’s privilege states that in this situation, a shopkeeper defendant who reasonably believes that the plaintiff has stolen or is attempting to steal something from the defendant shopkeeper may detain the plaintiff in a reasonable manner for a reasonable amount of time to investigate.
The key here is reasonable belief – similar to probable cause for a law enforcement officer. If loss prevention employees detain a store customer without probable cause that the person has committed shoplifting, they are liable to the customer for false imprisonment.
If a police officer then arrests the customer and charges them with shoplifting based only on the store employee’s word without confirming that there is probable cause for the arrest, then 1) the police officer and/or his agency may be liable for false imprisonment, wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution, and any injuries that the customer suffers as a consequence, and 2) the store may also be liable for the chain of events that their employee’s actions set into motion.
If you are a victim of false imprisonment in SC, whether it is due to over-aggressive loss prevention employees at a store or an arrest without probable cause, your Myrtle Beach criminal defense and civil rights lawyer on the Axelrod team will investigate your case, work hard to get your case dismissed or win your case at trial, and help you to determine whether you have a civil claim against the officer, police department, store, or others.