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To 'imprison' someone is to deprive him of his liberty, in a very general sense. It does not require iron bars or stone walls: you can be imprisoned in the street. False imprisonment is a tort that is perpetrated when the defendant deprives the claimant of his liberty without lawful justification. If you Arrest a person, that constitutes a prima facie imprisonment, so many cases against the police for wrongful arrest take the form of actions for false imprisonment.
Because the boundaries of false imprisonment are so wide, it might be helpful to consider some actions that do not amount to false imprisonment. Obstruction of a person's right of way, even if the obstruction is unlawful, is not a false imprisonment (see: Bird v jones (1845)), although it might be actionable in Nuisance. It probably is not false imprisonment if a person accepts confinement voluntarily, with a contractual agreement as to his mode of release see: Robinson v balmain new ferry co (1910). And, of course, there is no false imprisonment where the imprisoner acts under specific statutory authority (see: Power of arrest). It appears to be generally accepted that it is not false imprisonment to restrain someone from committing a Breach of the peace, although there is little case law on this.
It has often been argued that to be imprisoned, the claimant must have known of the fact of his imprisonment. However, this position was refuted in Meering v grahame-white aviation co (1920).
False imprisonment is one of the few civil actions that can still be tried by a jury. Traditionally juries have awarded very large sums in damages, particularly where the defendant is a police officer. Enterprising lawyers have sometimes been able to frame an action that should properly be considered an Assault as one of false imprisonment (notoriously in Rape cases). The reasoning here - which is probably correct - is that a jury will be more sympathetic to the claimant's plight than a judge would.