Unlawful Restraint

The basics on the crime of unlawful restraint.

By , J.D.
Updated November 30, 2022

The crime of unlawful restraint occurs whenever someone illegally deprives others of their physical freedom. Some states refer to the crime as false imprisonment.

In this article, we'll review how the law defines and punishes unlawful restraint crimes.

What Is the Definition of Unlawful Restraint?

Unlawful restraint happens when one person knowingly and intentionally restrains another person without that person's consent and without legal justification. Though state laws differ in how they categorize unlawful restraint crimes, they all prohibit the same kind of conduct.

Intentional Detention

Unlawful restraint always involves some sort of intentional detention. You cannot commit unlawful restraint by accident, and you must intend for your actions to result in confining someone else. However, there is no requirement that the victim is physically placed in a cell, secure building, or other confined area. It's enough that victims believe they are restrained from taking action or leaving an area.

The detention can result from verbal orders, lies, or physical restraint. Violence or the threat of violence may also be involved. If only threatened force is used to confine a victim, the victim must have a reasonable apprehension or fear of the threatened force. There is no minimum time requirement involved in unlawful restraint. If a victim is confined even for a few moments, this is enough to qualify as unlawful restraint.

No Legal Authority

You cannot unlawfully restrain someone if you have the legal authority to confine the person. However, it is up to a court to determine lawfulness. So, if you restrain someone believing that you had the legal authority to do so, and a court later determines you didn't, you can be convicted of unlawful restraint.

Against Another's Will

You cannot unlawfully confine someone who consents to the restraint. The victim must be an unwilling participant. For example, a security guard that asks a store customer to accompany him to the store's security area does not commit unlawful restraint if the person agrees to accompany the guard voluntarily. But if a person wants to leave an area and they are held against their will, this could be unlawful restraint.

Unable to Escape or Leave

The confinement involved in unlawful restraint must be complete, meaning the victim must not be able to leave. For example, a person who can leave a confined area by opening a door or walking away is not confined. However, the victim must be aware of the reasonable manner of escape and be capable of acting upon it. So, if the victim believes that attempting to escape would result in violence or harm because of threatened violence, that can be enough to make the confinement total even if there is an easy escape route.

What Are the Penalties for Unlawful Restraint?

States often differentiate between felony and misdemeanor unlawful restraint crimes.

Felony or misdemeanor. Felony charges usually apply when the circumstances surrounding the unlawful restraint exposed the victim to harm or substantial risk of injury or involved violence or the threat of violence. Misdemeanor unlawful restraint usually does not have an element of physical risk to the victim or any use of violence. However, state laws on unlawful restraint differ significantly, as do the potential punishments involved.

Incarceration. For a misdemeanor conviction of unlawful restraint, a jail sentence of less than a year is possible, while felony convictions may impose potential prison terms of 10 years or more. In some situations, such as where the unlawful detention victim was a child, the law may authorize decades behind bars.

Fines. Misdemeanor convictions of unlawful restraint typically involve fines of $2,000 or less, while felony fines often exceed $5,000.

Probation. Probation as a sentence for unlawful restraint is possible, but often only with misdemeanor charges where the convicted person has not committed previous crimes. However, even felony unlawful restraint charges may result in a probation sentence in some situations. Probation usually lasts at least 6 months, though one-year or longer probation sentences are common.

Get Legal Advice

Unlawful restraint charges are very serious. Even if you've never been convicted of a crime or believed you were acting legally, unlawful restraint charges can result in years in prison and substantial fines. If you're facing unlawful restraint charges, you need legal advice from an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Your defense attorney can help you navigate the criminal legal system, explore possible defenses, and zealously defend your rights.

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