False imprisonment or unlawful imprisonment occurs when a person intentionally restricts anbother person’s movement within any area without legal authority, justification, or the restrained person’s permission. Actual physical restraint is not necessary for false imprisonment to occur.
A false imprisonment claim may be based upon private acts, or upon wrongful governmental detention. For detention by the police, proof of false imprisonment provides a basis to obtain a writ of habeas corpus. Under the common law, false imprisonment is both a crime and a tort.
Imprisonment usually means locking a person in jail, but in this tort it has much wider meaning and includes not only incarceration in prison but any physical restraint; for example where a brother locks his adult sister in her bedroom and removes the key or where a whimsical lecturer locks his students in a lecture hall after a lecture.
As Coke C.J. once said “every restraint of the liberty of a free man is an imprisonment, although he be not within the walls of any common prison”
It is a fundamental requirement of the tort that the plaintiff’s freedom of movement in every direction must have been restricted. A partial restraint is not sufficient. See the celebrated English case of Bird V. Jones (1845) 115 E.R.668.
For instance, if the plaintiff lives in a room with doors, one opening onto the street, and the other into a room in the possession of a third party, it is not false imprisonment on the part of the defendant to lock the street door of the plaintiff’s room, for the later can escape from his room through the third party’s room, and it is immaterial that in so doing the plaintiff will commit a trespass against the third party.
Another characteristic of the tort is that it may be committed without the use of physical force. The use of authority is enough. Thus, if police officers wrongfully order the plaintiff to accompany them to the police station for questioning and the plaintiff obeys, the officers may be liable for false imprisonment even though they never touched the plaintiff.
Furthermore, an invitation by police officers to the plaintiff to accompany them to the police station cannot be false imprisonment if they make it clear to him that he is entitled to refuse to go, for then there will be no restraint. See the case of Clark V. Davies (1964) Gleaner L.R. 145 (Jamica).
It is a question of fact in each case as to whether there was a restraint or not. The facts of Aigoro V. Anebunwa (1966) N.N.L.R. 87. For instance, were that the defendant had stood a surety for a debt in Kano by the plaintiff. The defendant believed that the plaintiff intended to leave Kano without paying the debt, and he intercepted him at the railway station as he was about to board a train, saying that he would not let the plaintiff go until had settled the debt.
The defendant now called a police man to assist him, and the plaintiff was “invited” by the police to accompany him and the defendant to the charge office. The plaintiff complied, without in any way being physically touched.
It was held by the High Court that the plaintiff had been falsely imprisoned since it was clear from the evidence that “both the defendant and the constable were determined that the plaintiff should come to the police station and satisfy that they were entitled to demand that he come, whatever his own wishes might be, and even though his train was standing at the platform ready to move off…in complying with the “invitation” at that moment and in those circumstances, the plaintiff can hardly be supposed to have been doing what he wanted to do or acting of his own free will.
There was evidence from which a submission on the part of the plaintiff and a restraint of his liberty could be properly have been inferred.
Where a customer of a bank was not allowed to leave the bank premises by a gateman it was held to be false imprisonment. See the case of Union Bank of Nig. Ltd V. Ajaku (1990) 1 NWLR pt. 126 pg. 328.
Detentions that is not False imprisonment
Even when a person is involuntarily detained, not all acts of detention amount to false imprisonment. The law may privilege a person to detain somebody else against their will. A legally authorized detention does not constitute false imprisonment. For example, if a parent or legal guardian of a child denies the child’s request to leave their house, and prevents them from doing so, this would not ordinarilly constitute false imprisonment. False imprisonment requires an intentional act, and an accidental detention will not support a claim of false imprisonment.