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False Arrest Claims Explained

            This article will explain the legal claim of false arrest, sometimes called “wrongful arrest” or “false imprisonment,” and the differences between claims brought under state and federal law.  First, it is important to understand that false arrest is different from malicious prosecution, which we explained in this post.   The key distinction is that a false arrest claim arises at the moment of the arrest, but a malicious prosecution claim does not arise until some formal legal process, usually an indictment, is filed.  For this reason, claims for false arrest and malicious prosecution usually will have different statutes of limitation, which is the time-period during which a legal claim must be brought before it expires.

            State law claims for false arrest can be brought against private actors and, in theory, against state actors.  But state actors may have immunity for state law claims for false arrest.  (This is true in Tennessee, where absolute sovereign immunity is retained for claims for false arrest in most situations.)  Such state actors do not have absolute immunity under federal law, as for example under 42 USC § 1983.  The defense of qualified immunity may be available to these defendants, but, unlike sovereign immunity, this defense can be defeated under the right set of facts.

False Arrest Under Kentucky Law

            In an action for false arrest or for assault and battery, the focus is on whether the defendant had reasonable grounds to believe and did believe in good faith that the plaintiff had committed an arrestable offense, and whether the officer used excessive force in making the arrest.  The officer is liable for false arrest and battery if he lacked reasonable grounds for the arrest, or if the officer had a reasonable basis for the arrest but used more force than was necessary.  A plaintiff asserting a claim for malicious prosecution must prove not only that the charge was brought without probable cause, but also that the criminal proceedings were terminated in favor of the party pursuing the claim.  Kentucky cases define false imprisonment as being any deprivation of the liberty of one person by another or detention for however short a time without such person’s consent and against his will, whether done by actual violence, threats or otherwise.  Furthermore, false imprisonment requires that the restraint be wrongful, improper, or without a claim of reasonable justification, authority or privilege.  Banks v. Fritsch, 39 S.W.3d 474, 479 (Ky. Ct. App. 2001).

False Arrest Under Tennessee Law

            To recover under the tort of false arrest and imprisonment, a plaintiff must prove: “(1) the detention or restraint of one against his will and (2) the unlawfulness of such detention or restraint.” Coffee v. Peterbilt of Nashville, Inc., 795 S.W.2d 656, 659 (Tenn. 1990). The claim accrues at the time of arrest and imprisonment.  Like the tort of malicious prosecution, false imprisonment requires that the defendant must have acted without probable cause.  It is important to note that such claims are essentially barred under Tennessee law against local and state government actors.  This is because municipal and state actors retain sovereign immunity for intentional torts, of which false arrest is one.   As to the State—for example, State Troopers –the Supreme Court of Tennessee has said: “The legislature definitely did not intend to subject the State to such claims: the Claims Commission does not have jurisdiction over malicious prosecution claims; in fact, it does not have jurisdiction over any intentional torts.”  Shell v. State, 893 S.W.2d 416, 421 (Tenn. 1995).  And as to local government actors—for example local police officers—the Governmental Tort Liability Act retains immunity for civil rights violations.   Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205 (West).  But there is a curious wrinkle in Tennessee law.  Actions for intentional torts, including false arrest, committed by Sheriff’s deputies are actionable under T.C.A. § 8–8–301, et seq., in the appropriate cases.  Jenkins v. Loudon Cty., 736 S.W.2d 603, 609 (Tenn. 1987), abrogated on other grounds by Limbaugh v. Coffee Med. Ctr., 59 S.W.3d 73 (Tenn. 2001).  Therefore, under Tennessee law, the tort of false arrest is effectively only available as against a private actor—unless the facts involve a deputy sheriff.

False Arrest Under Federal Law

        A false arrest claim under federal law requires a plaintiff to prove that the arresting officer lacked probable cause to arrest the plaintiff.  Sykes v. Anderson, 625 F.3d 294, 305 (6th Cir. 2010).  But  an arrest based on a facially valid warrant approved by a magistrate provides a complete defense.  Therefore, a plaintiff alleging a federal claim for false arrest must also allege the warrant was invalid.  Failing that, the plaintiff must allege the affiant (usually a police officer) “knowingly and deliberately, or with a reckless disregard for the truth, made false statements or omissions that create[d] a falsehood” and “such statements or omissions [we]re material, or necessary, to the finding of probable cause.”  Id.  Under federal law, “probable cause” is defined as reasonable grounds for belief, supported by less than prima facie proof but more than mere suspicion.  Id.  It is evaluated under a “totality of the circumstances” tests.

            Defendants in federal lawsuits may have the defense of qualified immunity, but this defense, unlike sovereign immunity, can be defeated under the rights set of facts.

            If you or a loved one has suffered false arrest, false imprisonment, or wrongful arrest, contact the civil rights lawyers at DRS Law today.