A false arrest is a situation in which someone is detained unlawfully. Depending on the circumstances, this charge may be changed to a false imprisonment charge, in which someone is illegally confined, or a kidnapping, in which someone is detained and transported illegally. It can be difficult to prove a false arrest charge, but if the charge can be proved, sometimes it is possible to recover punitive damages from the arresting party.
False arrests are considered an example of a tort, a civil crime. They are usually classified as misdemeanors. The vast majority of these charges which make their way to court are leveled against private security companies, who sometimes use threats or coercion to hold people. Rarely, a case can be brought against a police officer, and individual citizens are also liable to false arrest charges if they detain someone unlawfully.
In a false arrest, an arrest is made without legal authority. Some arrests turn out to be ill advised later, but they were made with legal authority, so they are not false arrests. For example, it is legal to arrest a felony suspect in the course of investigation; is the suspect later turns out to be innocent, the arrest is not considered false, because the arresting officer had reasonable suspicions about the suspect.
Private citizens do have the right to detain people who have committed certain crimes in some countries, and this is known as a citizen's arrest. In order for a citizen's arrest to be legal, the citizen must actually see the crime in progress, and positively identify the criminal. Furthermore, law enforcement must be called immediately to enact a formal arrest. Otherwise, a citizen may be liable to a false arrest charge.
In order for a police officer to be charged with a false arrest, he or she must knowingly detain someone who has not committed a crime. For example, if a policeman arrests the wrong person on a warrant, he or she could be charged. If a member of law enforcement detains a black shopper for no reason, the shopper could file a false arrest charge and potentially recover punitive damages for discrimination.