Trapped in the Closet

Is it ever legal to detain someone against her will?

Tila Tequila. Click image to expand.
Tila Tequila

MTV star Tila Tequila accused San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman of battery and false imprisonment after an altercation in Merriman’s home last Sunday. Merriman says he was trying to prevent her from drunk driving. Is it ever legal to detain someone against his or her will?

Sure, as long as you can prove it was necessary. One justification for detainment is self-defense, like if an assailant is coming at you with a knife and you lock him in a closet. It’s also legal to detain someone if you believe he’s going to harm himself or others. If Merriman can prove that he was concerned Tequila would get behind the wheel while drunk, he might have a case. The method of restraint, however, has to be “reasonable.” Taking away someone’s keys and locking the car doors is reasonable; punching and choking someone, as Tequila alleges Merriman did, is not. Who determines what’s “reasonable” behavior? If the answer is obvious, a judge makes the call; otherwise, a jury does.

Police, naturally, have more leeway than private citizens in deciding whether to detain someone. Whereas private individuals need to demonstrate that their actions were necessary, police merely need to show “probable cause” or “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been committed, which in practice can encompass just about anything. In a 2000 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that merely seeing someone running from the police in a high-crime area can amount to a reasonable suspicion.

Shopkeepers also have a bit more leeway than the average Joe. Most states recognize the so-called “shopkeeper’s privilege,” whereby it’s kosher for a store owner to detain a suspected shoplifter so long as the suspicion is “reasonable”—like if the alleged thief has a bulge under his shirt. Shopkeepers must also limit themselves to only “reasonable” force—i.e., they can’t shoot or stab the suspect—and may not prolong the detainment unnecessarily.

Rarely is anyone convicted of false imprisonment and nothing else. More often, a charge of false imprisonment is tagged onto another charge, like assault or battery or kidnapping. In one recent case, however, employees of Costco sued the company for $50 million for false imprisonment, plain and simple, after Costco required them to stay an extra 15 minutes every night without paying them. The lawsuit is still pending.

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Explainer thanks Jenny Carroll of University of Cincinnati School of Law, William Childs of West New England College School of Law, and Robert L. Rabin of New York University School of Law.