Can I Sue for False Arrest?

Toni Henthorn

False arrest is the unlawful detention or arrest of an individual without reasonable grounds or probable cause. A false arrest must be committed by someone who supposedly is acting with lawful authority, such as a police officer, whereas false imprisonment can refer to any illegal restraint or confinement. A plaintiff in a false arrest case must prove he was arrested or held against his will and that the defendant was responsible for that detention. The defendant in a false arrest case bears the burden of establishing that he had reasonable and sufficient grounds to believe that the plaintiff had committed a crime. Existence of probable cause or voluntary consent to confinement by the plaintiff nullifies a claim of false arrest.

By definition, only a law enforcement official can make a false arrest.
By definition, only a law enforcement official can make a false arrest.

A police offer has the authority to make an arrest under certain circumstances. If the officer has a proper warrant for the arrest of an individual, he may proceed with the arrest. For a felony arrest, the officer must have a reasonable belief that the person that he is arresting committed a felony, and he must use reasonable force in making the arrest.

Law enforcement must be able to show probable cause before an arrest can be made legally.
Law enforcement must be able to show probable cause before an arrest can be made legally.

Deadly force is permissible to protect the officer’s life or the lives of innocent bystanders. For a misdemeanor arrest, the officer must witness the offense or believe that the offense disturbs the peace or disrupts order. He must also use only reasonable force in making the arrest.

A suspect may sue if they feel they were unfairly questioned by law enforcement.
A suspect may sue if they feel they were unfairly questioned by law enforcement.

Private citizens may also make civil arrests under the same circumstances as the police officer. They are held to the same standards of reasonable grounds for the arrest and rational use of force. Citizens may only make civil arrests if they witness the crime and make the arrest directly or upon fresh pursuit. They are also able to restrain disturbed or mentally ill individuals if such individuals seem to pose a threat to themselves or others. False arrest claims cannot be successfully proven under these circumstances.

False arrest is a subcategory of false imprisonment, which can pertain to any circumstance under which a plaintiff suffers a curtailment of his freedom, even without physical restraint or formal walls. Some celebrities have successfully sued for false imprisonment when the paparazzi has hindered their shopping, driving, or entry into a building. Possible defenses against charges of false imprisonment are that the confinement occurred for self-defense or defense of property, investigation of stolen property, or as part of a legal arrest. Additionally, some false arrest suits may be barred when the defendant has sovereign, official, or charitable immunity, or when the defendant is a family member of the plaintiff.

Consulting with a lawyer can help a person determine the validity of their case.
Consulting with a lawyer can help a person determine the validity of their case.

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Discussion Comments


I was arrested after the police refused to write me a citation for what they called unreasonable noise. I was handcuffed and taken from my property and transported and held during processing and fingerprinting. This was an unlawful arrest, correct?


I was arrested for a crime allegedly committed in 2009 in 2011, the reason being that I was arrested by virtue of my position that I had facilitated an unlawful payment.


@stl156 - That is true, but any instance of false arrest is always investigated if someone follows up and the police department has to prove that they arrested the person with just cause or at least show that their mistake was justifiable.

Usually false arrest is not followed up by the courts simply because an honest and justifiable mistake occurred, like mistaken identity.

However, if someone is unjustly arrested they can sue the police department, but they have to prove they this occurred, which is very difficult to do.

I only see that one could win a case like this, when the police department arrests someone in a way that is nearly impossible for them to justify, which is rare in any case.

It would help if someone were to list a few instances in which someone sued for wrongful arrest and it garnered a lot of media exposure.


@titans62 - That is true, but I feel like it can be very easy for the police to offer and explanation as to why they arrested him.

It could be that he was arrested as a case of mistaken identity and since they let him go right away, that shows they chose not to follow up on any action.

It is entirely possible that he was arrested for this reason and if they did so with good intentions and let him go as soon as the saw their mistake and properly investigated the matter, then they will not get into trouble for it, because anyone can be arrested under suspicion for 48 hours.

I know someone that was arrested for mistaken identity and he could not sue the police department because they arrested him under the pre tense they thought he was the one they were looking for and it was an honest mistake.


@JimmyT - It seems like to me that this is a little bit of an iffy case as it is obvious that this could be a little complicated with all facts considered.

It is obvious that the police department has a checkered past as far as matters dealing with race are concerned, but legally I believe that they can arrest someone and keep them in jail for the night as long as it is for a good reason.

Now that being said, it is fairly suspicious that they do not offer a reason for his arrest and the fact that he was not convicted and they did not follow up on anything, it shows that he did nothing wrong.

Because of all these factors I feel like he could sue them for false arrest and this is where they need to offer an explanation as to why they arrested him and if they fail to, then he will win.

This seems very fishy and this is why people can go to court with these types of things when not so honest cops are involved.


I have a friend that was once arrested when he was coming out of a convenience store and was promptly arrested by the police. He claims to me that he was never told the reason for his arrest and was released the next day after spending the night in jail.

He feels like he was arrested simply because he was a black man and the local police department has had a history of racial prejudice in their arrests.

That being said I am wondering if this would be grounds for suing for false arrests, even from the standpoint that he was arrested and has requested a reason why he was arrested, but has still never been told why by the police department.

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