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False Arrestfalse Imprisonment By Law Enforcement Officers

When a person is arrested by a law enforcement officer without “probable cause” that arrest is called a false arrest. A person falsely arrested has been illegally restrained against his will. False imprisonment is similar to false arrest except that one need not be detained by a law enforcement officer to have a cause of action for false imprisonment. For example, a shopkeeper who suspects that a customer has shoplifted may (wrongly) detain the customer even though the shopkeeper has no probable cause to confirm his suspicion of shoplifting. In a later blog I will write about false imprisonment by shopkeepers. Today’s topic, however, is  limited to false arrest by law enforcement officers under state law concepts.

Unpinning any false arrest case is the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which gives every citizen the
right to be free from unreasonable government intrusion into his person, his home, or his property, unless the government has “probable cause.” Probable cause means that at the time of the arrest the facts and circumstances known to the officer were sufficiently strong to support a reasonable belief that a crime had been committed. While this appears to be a low threshold, a police officer may not close her or his eyes to facts that would help clarify the circumstances of an arrest; he or she must conduct a reasonable investigation before invoking the awesome power of arrest and detention.

Recently, I represented a client in a false arrest case against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office after the client was accused of sexual battery upon a female patron inside of a nightclub. The client was arrested and spent time in the County jail. The deputy sheriff who made the arrest was at the time a rookie officer still on probation with the Sheriff’s office. He made the arrest based solely on the word of the alleged victim who had been drinking for at least six hours before the alleged incident. While a victim’s statement to law enforcement can in some circumstances provide the probable cause necessary for an arrest, the deputy’s investigation, or lack thereof, was woefully inadequate in this case. For instance, the deputy made the arrest less than nine minutes after speaking to the victim and before taking a sworn statement from her. Additionally, he ignored or refused to speak to any other potential witnesses inside the bar, including an objective third party who saw another male inside the bar assault the woman.
We went to trial and obtained a verdict against the Sheriff’s Office. As in any false arrest case the jury was instructed that it could award damages for bodily injury, pain and suffering, mental anguish, embarrassment, humiliation, deprivation of liberty, disgrace, injury to feelings, injury to reputation, inconvenience, loss of time and loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life; medical expense for medical care and treatment; lost earnings; and, attorney’s fees in having to secure release from the illegal restraint. We did not recover, let alone plead, damages for all of these elements. However, my client was satisfied that justice had been served and I was once again assured of my faith in the jury system.