articles: False Imprisonment

The offense of false imprisonment is governed by 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2903.  This statute states as follows:

§ 2903. False imprisonment.

(a) Offense defined.--A person commits an offense if he knowingly restrains another unlawfully so as to interfere substantially with his liberty.

(b) Grading.-- (1) Except as provided in paragraph (2), an offense under subsection (a) is a misdemeanor of the second degree. (2) If the victim of the offense is an individual under 18 years of age, an offense under subsection (a) is a felony of the second degree.

(Dec. 20, 2000, P.L.721, No.98, eff. imd.)

To establish a claim of fale imprisonment against a police officer, decective or governmental employee and agency, a plaintiff must establish that the the employee acted with actual malice or committed willful misconduct.   Immunity is conferred pursuant to Section 8545 of the Act popularly referred to as “The Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act,” which provides:

“An employee of a local agency is liable for civil damages on account of any injury to a person or property caused by acts of the employee which are within the scope of his office or duties only to the same extent as his employing local agency and subject to the limitations imposed by this subchapter.”  42 Pa. C.S. § 8545.

Section 8541 of the Act renders a local agency immune from liability for personal injuries, as follows: “Except as otherwise  provided in this subchapter, no local agency shall be liable for any damages on account of any injury to a person or property caused by any act of the local agency or an employee thereof or any other person.”  Section 8542(b) specifies eight categories of negligent action that are exceptions to this general immunity, which are:

(1) vehicle liability; (2) care, custody or control of personal property; (3) real property; (4) trees, traffic controls and street lighting; (5) utility service facilities; (6) streets; (7) sidewalks; and (8) care, custody or control of animals. 42 Pa. C.S. § 8542(b).

However, in addition immunity is abrogated, with respect to local agency employees, for conduct which constitutes a crime, actual fraud, actual malice, or willful misconduct.” Jones v. Philadelphia, 893 A.2d 837, 843 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2006) [citing Renk v. Pittsburgh, 537 Pa. 68, 641 A.2d 289 (1994) (footnote omitted)].  But, probable cause negates the malice required for claims of malicious prosecution, malicious abuse of process, false imprisonment, and false arrest to stand.  See, e.g., McGriff v. Vidovich, 699 A.2d 797 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1997); Cassidy v. Abington Township, 571 A.2d 543, 545 n.1 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1990). 

In the context of official police action, the Court in Renk v. Pittsburgh also recognized that:

A police officer may use reasonable force to prevent interference with the exercise of his authority or the
performance of his duty. In making a lawful arrest, a police officer may use such force as is necessary under the circumstances to effectuate the arrest. The reasonableness of the force used in making the arrest determines whether the police officer’s conduct constitutes an assault and battery.  Id. at 76, 641 A.2d at 293.

In addition the Court in Renk v. Pittsburgh noted that, in general, a claim of false arrest/imprisonment cannot prevail if the arrest and detention are based on probable cause, i.e., known facts and circumstances from personal observation or trustworthy information sufficient to warrant a reasonable belief that a person has committed or is committing a crime.  But further, the Court ruled that, in an action against a police officer in the performance of his official duties, even if it is ultimately determined that probable cause was lacking, the element of willful misconduct occurs only if the officer intentionally arrested the person knowing he lacked probable cause to do so.  Id.

As recognized in Renk v. Pittsburgh, the scope of proper police conduct during the process of arrest, detention, and assertion of criminal charges may encompass actions that, if committed by one citizen against another outside of the law enforcement context, could constitute acts of willful misconduct justifying intentional tort claims. However, in the context of official police action, where immunity bars liability for damages incidental to appropriate police conduct, willful misconduct cannot be inferred merely from the use of physical force or from an arrest ultimately determined to have occurred without probable cause. Rather, in order to sustain claims for assault and battery based on a police officer’s official conduct, a plaintiff must establish more than that the officer intended to use physical force; she must establish that the officer intended to use excessive force.  Similarly, to establish the element of willful misconduct in order to sustain a claim for false arrest/imprisonment, a plaintiff must show not only that the officer lacked probable cause to arrest but that he intentionally arrested the plaintiff knowing that he lacked probable cause.  Renk v. Pittsburgh, 537 Pa. at 77, 641 A.2d at 294. See also Ferber v. Philadelphia, 661 A.2d 470, 476 n.10 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1995).

This heightened standard regarding what constitutes willful misconduct in the context of the performance of police duties must extend to the full panoply of police activity, including not only the physical acts associated with the arrest and detention but also the actions associated with charging a suspect with the commission of a crime, publicizing the charges and triggering a prosecution. Insofar as these are all appropriate police actions, a similar heightened culpability must be associated with those actions in order to qualify as malice or willful misconduct sufficient to lift immunity.

Disclaimer:  This article is intended for informational purposes only, and is not meant to be an exhaustive review of applicable law on its subject.  There is no attorney-client relationship established between you and the law firm of Jeffrey R. Lessin & Associates, P.C. merely by accessing this website or reading this article.

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