False imprisonment (also known as unlawful detention and wrongful arrest) is probably the most common abuse of police powers. Almost all of us have been stopped by the police at some point in our lives. What most don’t realise is that the vast majority of these stops fall outside of police powers and constitute false imprisonment.
If at any point in the past six years you have been stopped unlawfully by the police – even for just a few minutes – then you may be able to bring a claim against them for damages.
What Is False Imprisonment?
False imprisonment means the total restraint of a person’s liberty for any duration and without lawful justification. It can occur on the street, in a vehicle, in a shop, at work, in a mine, on public transport, on public or private premises or in police custody. You can even be falsely imprisoned in a room, in your home, a street, a city or an entire country. It can last anywhere from a few seconds to a number of years.
You do not have to be physically restrained as any form of unlawful restraint is false imprisonment. If you are led to believe by words or actions that if you attempt to leave then you will be physically prevented from doing so then this too is a restraint. [Warner v Riddiford (1858); Chinn v Morris (1826); Grainger v Hill (1838); Conn v David Spencer Ltd (1930)]
False imprisonment claims can be brought against the police up to 6 years from the date they occurred.
What Is NOT False Imprisonment?
You CANNOT be falsely imprisoned if you consent to remain with the police when stopped, unless you are given the impression that the police would prevent you from leaving if you attempted to do so. Nor can it occur if you have been lawfully arrested.
A lawful arrest does not always result in a prosecution and you cannot claim to have been falsely imprisoned simply because the police did not charge you with a crime. As long as your arrest is necessary or a reasonably found suspicion exists to arrest (or search) then it is not unlawful.
Also it’s important to understand that false imprisonment means a total restriction of your freedom not a partial one. For instance, it’s not false imprisonment if the police prevent you from walking past them when you could simply turn around and walk back the other way. However, in some instances this could be classed as an assault.
There are also several statutes that grant the police additional powers of search (such as the Police And Criminal Evidence Act, Misuse of Drugs Act and the Theft Act) as well as powers of detention for Breach of the Peace, but apart from these any detention made by the police for questioning without arrest is false imprisonment.
Common Examples of False Imprisonment by Police
What follows are some of the most common examples of false imprisonment committed by the police. This list is by no means exhaustive:
The police stop you on the street without just cause or lawful authority and insist you answer questions before they will allow you to leave:
Those questions are commonly an attempt at ‘fishing for evidence’ to give the police a reason to search or arrest you. You are never under any obligation to answer questions as a condition of freedom except in the rare instances where you are required to give your name and address. During a street stop you are only required to give your name and address if the police intend to prosecute you. Otherwise you should NEVER give the police your details.
The police want to search you against your will simply because they don’t like the look of you or because you refuse to answer their questions:
This is also known as an unlawful stop and search which can automatically give rise to a claim of false imprisonment, assault and battery. An example of this – where we achieved a £500 compensation payout for a Crimebodge reader – with just one legal letter – can be found here.
A police officer out of uniform (or a PCSO) stops you in a motor vehicle for a non-indictable offence: Contrary to section 163 of the Road Traffic Act.
The police detain you in a vehicle at a census checkpoint and will not allow you to move on until you have complied: You are under no obligation to answer questions at a checkpoint and you cannot be detained because of your refusal to answer.
The police stop you in a motor vehicle because you have an outstanding civil debt (such as a parking fine or non payment of council tax) or because a bailiff intends to seize your vehicle: You cannot be forced to pay a debt or comply with a contract as a condition of your freedom. In fact, any detention by the police in relation to a civil matter is false imprisonment (including watching a television without a licence).
A police officer (on or off duty) uses his warrant card or his authority to settle a personal dispute: An example would be a police officer abusing his position to settle a neighbour dispute, or to bully someone he didn’t like or stopping someone on the street for a spiteful look or a mumbled word.
The police insist you sit in the back of their vehicle when you have not been placed under arrest: What’s important to note here is that even if the police intend to prosecute you for a minor offence such as speeding or failing to stop, they have no powers to imprison you within the confines of a police vehicle without making an arrest.
The police insist that you are obliged to remain detained – without being arrested – because you are a witness to something or to help them with their enquiries: [Warner v Riddiford (1858) Chinn V Morris (1826)] An appalling example of the police forcing unlawful detention upon an alleged witness can be found here.
The police invite you to the police station to answer questions and then promptly arrest you: The police should never use arrest as a formality and should always have reasonable grounds for making an arrest. [Richardson V West Midlands Police (2011)]
A bailiff or TV Licensing agent visits your home with the police and the police attempt to stop your from walking away or leaving your home: When police accompany enforcement agents such as Capita it should be purely to prevent a breach of the peace and not to assist them in gathering evidence or enforcing an entry warrant.
You are kept detained when the police have enough information to charge you or your arrest is no longer necessary: This also goes for instances of breach of the peace where the police keep you for a considerable length of time after the breach has expired and without bringing you before a magistrate to be bound over.
The police arrest you without giving you a reason why or they delay telling you until they can come up with a valid reason for an arrest:
Any person arrested must be informed of the grounds upon which he has been arrested otherwise the arrest is unlawful. The police are not entitled to remain silent or fabricate a ‘holding charge’. [Christie v Leachinsky (1947)]
The police raid a pub or club without a warrant (or with a premises only search warrant) and prevent you from leaving the premises and /or attempt to search you:
Nobody in this country is required to satisfy a police officer that he or she is not committing an offence. The power to detain and search arises only where a reasonably founded suspicion can be shown to exist. [Hepburn v CC Thames Valley 2002]
Common Examples of False Imprisonment by others
Not just uniformed officers can falsely imprison an individual. You can be unlawfully detained by PCSOs, traffic wardens, security guards, store detectives, bank staff, teachers, employers, customs officials, the RSPCA, FACT, social services, customs and excise, special branch, MI5, MI6, court officials, bailiffs, debt collectors, TV Licensing, doormen, storekeepers, bus drivers, ticket inspectors, and neighbours. You even be falsely imprisoned by your own parents! As this article is primarily concerned with abuses by the police, we will only give a few instances of alternative abuses of authority:
- A security guard stops you and will not let you leave unless you answer questions.
- A bus driver or train guard prevents you from disembarking at an authorised stop.
- A store detective insists you remain in the store on suspicion of shoplifting when you are innocent.
- A bailiff blocks in your vehicle so that you cannot exit the vehicle.
- TV Licensing officials block you from leaving a room of your own home.
- A security guard, PCSO or other uniformed official prevents you from moving on until you have shown them photos taken on your phone or camera.
- A civilian attempts a citizen’s arrest for a non-indictable offence, or for an offence that you have not committed.
- You are prevented from leaving a tribunal or disciplinary hearing.
Your right to use reasonable force against the police
In almost all of the circumstances we have listed above you have a right to use reasonable force against the police to resist false imprisonment. Any counter force the police use against you would be assault and battery.
This does not mean that ANY force is acceptable to regain your freedom. Any force you use must be reasonable and proportional to that being used by the police. If they strike you with a baton when attempting to falsely imprison you, then you have a common law right to strike the officer back, bring the officer to the ground or restrain him.
Of course don’t expect such lawful counter-measures to be met with anything other than further extreme force, but it is important to understand that under such circumstances you cannot be convicted of assault where you have used reasonable self-defence to prevent the police from making a wrongful arrest or unlawful detention:
“A claimant does not need to risk violence to resist his arrester but he is entitled to use reasonable force to resist any unlawful restraint” (R v McKoy 2002)
“There is no false imprisonment where the claimant consents, but he is not to be taken as consenting simply because he does not resist. Furthermore he is entitled to use force to resist.” (Hepburn v CC Thames Valley 2002)