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Tort of False Imprisonment

Colleen is an attorney in the United States, and a solicitor on the roll in England and Wales.


The seventeenth-century British playwright and poet Richard Lovelace penned the well-known quotation: “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.”

Confined for political activities, Lovelace strove to transcend the day-to-day dreariness by viewing his restraint as an opportunity for enhanced creativity. While Lovelace applied these words to actual confinement, they provide an encapsulation of the tort of false imprisonment. This has proven true in that neither walls nor bars are required for this to occur.

Indeed, restraint constituting this tort can be based upon physical or psychological threats, either to the alleged prisoner, or someone dear to him.

False Imprisonment Defined

Most of the U.S., and European countries, have endorsed the following definition, with a few variations. Still, the underlying concept remains in a significant number of legal systems.

Overall, false imprisonment consists of intentional, unjustified confinement of a plaintiff by a defendant, within a bounded area, from which the plaintiff has no known avenue of escape. If the plaintiff can be shown to have been aware of an escape route, he is obliged to avail himself of it, in order to succeed in this type of claim.

A claim can also be validated if physical barriers have been deployed as a means of confinement. In addition, threats to harm the plaintiff, or someone dear to him, can be viewed as a barrier.

Social or moral lapses, however, will not reach this threshold. Threats to reveal such peccadilloes as embezzlement or infidelity are viewed as the plaintiff’s unfortunate choices, and hence are not allowed to bolster a claim.

In the conduct of life we make use of deliberation to justify ourselves in doing what we want to do.

— Somerset Maugham

A man locked in a closet while his home is being robbed, will have a valid cause of action for false imprisonment, in addition to robbery.

Conversely, a woman seeking an abortion may be barred from entering a clinic, if blocked and outnumbered by irate protesters.

A quick way to remember is “in not out” false imprisonment means keeping someone confined in some way.

Comparing an Unleashed Dog to a Missing Driver’s Licence

The 1977 case of Enright v. Groves provides an intriguing scenario.

Here, Ms. Enright, while driving her car, was stopped by a police officer, based on the fact that her dog was not on a leash. Then, when asked to produce her driver’s license, Ms. Enright proved unable to do so. Upon this basis, she was arrested.

Later, following her release, she prevailed in her claim for false imprisonment. The court held that although liable for the offence of failing to keep her dog on a leash, the fact of being unable to produce her driver’s license was not an offence warranting either arrest or long-term restraint.

Rights of Shopkeepers and Customers

The law endorses a shopkeeper’s right to detain anyone reasonably believed to have attempted to exit a shop without having paid for those goods and/or services obtained. The central legal element here stems from the reasonable foundation for this belief.

Plain clothes guards are paid to detain suspected shoplifters, preventing them from leaving, while the owner contacts the police. Though digital cameras lessen the need for such security, plain clothes men and women are still deputed to apprehend potential thieves.

Later, this customer will have the right to sue the store-owner for false imprisonment, if the alleged theft can be proved not to have been based on a reasonable supposition. Some jurisdictions allow shopkeepers to detain a suspect, on the premises, but not beyond its boundaries.

When malice has reason on its side, it becomes proud and displays reason in its entire splendour.

— Pascal

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Confined by Fear

The following case centres upon a daughter being locked in a Cellar.

Near the end of April 2008, global media became apprised of the locking in a cellar, for 24 years, by Josef Fritzl, of his daughter, Elisabeth. During that time, he fathered 7 children by her, often leaving her isolated to endure the birthing process alone.

The fact of this travesty having taken place in the cellar of the family home which continued to house his wife, Rosemarie, and the several children still living at home, strains credibility. However, once the essential facts were exposed, they became researched and recounted by John Glatt in his superb book, “Secrets In The Cellar”.

How could this horror have begun, and continued for such a significant time?

Josef Fritz's family home contained a cellar which was separate enough to allow sordid activities to persist without either being overheard, or deemed worth reporting. This proved true of lodgers who, hearing raucous sounds through the ceiling of this cellar, dismissed them as private frolicking.

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it conscientiously.

— Pascal

The Treachery Surrounding Elisabeth Fritzl and Her Children

Elisabeth, the second daughter of Josef and Rosemarie, seems to have been the most recalcitrant of their offspring. During her mid to late teens, she struggled against what she viewed as her father’s insistence on placing too many restraints on her burgeoning social activities. Perhaps no one, including Fritzl, can know when his paternal affection became obsessive to the point of lust.

We often do shallow good in order to accomplish evil with impunity.

— Rochefoucauld

Deception Begins to Take Shape

As Elisabeth’s 18th birthday approached, in order to gain her trust Fritzl encouraged her to rent a flat of her own. On the morning of August 29th 1984, just before she set out for her job, she felt no alarm when her father asked her to help him shift a cumbersome object from one part of the cellar to another.

Once there, he subjugated her by repeated beatings and threats of death, if she made the slightest attempt to escape, or reveal her whereabouts.

Still, in order to maintain his camouflage as a concerned but forgiving father, he had to convince his wife, children, and most importantly the police, Elisabeth had joined a cult from which Fritzl had no means of rescuing her.

How Was His Ruse Discovered?

Following seven incestuous births, conceived by Josef and his daughter Elisabeth, their eldest daughter, Kerstin, became gravely ill. Aware medical intervention was needed, Fritzi allowed her to be hospitalized. Elisabeth remained confined.

Eventually when the police were alerted Fritzl was arrested. Following a brief trial he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.

— jean-jacques rousseau

What Constitutes a Key?

A pivotal decision, often referred to in law school textbooks, is that of the 1912 landmark case of Whittaker v. Sanford.

Here, a couple, Mr and Mrs Sanford and their four children chose to join a religious sect, the husband as minister, and the wife as a devout adherent.

When the wife decided to renounce membership, wanting to return to her children in America, the sect leader acquiesced. He vowed he would return her to her home via his yacht, and allow her to use his skiff to take her to the mainland.

Still, when the need arose, the sect leader refused her the use of the skiff, forcing her to remain on his yacht.

Seeing I had been drawn into a cult, I was glad to be freed from its suffocation.

— Sheila Miles

The Significance of the Skiff as a Key

Once authorities were able to force her release she took the sect leader to court. The pivotal question at trial became what constitutes a key.

The court held the skiff to have symbolized a key, promised to Ms. Sanford, in order to induce her to board the yacht. The sect leader’s promise was then withdrawn, thereby depriving her of her freedom via false imprisonment.


© 2021 Colleen Swan


Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on April 23, 2021:

Hi John, thank you for your insightful comment. It is I think one of the most interesting aspects of law, and yes, the Fritzl case is horrifying.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on April 22, 2021:

Colleen, this is a very interesting article pointing out different ways that false imprisonment can be interpreted. I too had heard of the Josef Fritz case, and others similar...shocking.

It is quite a coincidence that my most recent poem “An Ode of a Natural Life” is also about false imprisonment.

Thanks for sharing.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on April 22, 2021:

Hi Ann, Great to hear from you. Yes, it is amazing how many people use power as a means of control. It is hard to believe Fritzl got away with as much as he did over an extended period. With warm wishes Colleen

Ann Carr from SW England on April 22, 2021:

Interesting examples and explanations, Colleen. The law's interpretations are complex and difficult to fathom. I know of Josef Fritzl, a notorious case of its time. To get away with such things in a house full of people beggars belief.

I hope you're keeping well.


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