False Arrest Law and Legal Definition

False arrest is physically detaining someone without proper legal authority. The situation often arises when an retail business employee or owner holds a suspected shoplifter without having seen a crime committed in their presence or pretend that they are police officers. Such a person may be entitled to make a "citizen's arrest" , but they need to be sure that they have a person who has committed a crime, and they must call law enforcement officers to take over at the first opportunity.

Many states have enacted legislation to protect the merchant from such false arrest claims by allowing the store to make "investigative detentions" of a customer suspected of shoplifting. In these jurisdictions, the law allows certain latitude or "merchant's privilege" if the merchant has a reasonable belief that a customer has stolen merchandise. In many jurisdictions, law allows the merchant to detain a customer for a reasonable time, and in a reasonable manner, for the purpose recovering the stolen merchandise or for summoning the police.

Other common false arrest situations include an arrest by a police officer of the wrong person or without probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and/or without a warrant. False arrest can be the basis of a lawsuit for damages, including mental distress and embarrassment.