Following their purchase of an air-conditioner, Jerry and friends get lost in the mall parking lot while looking for George’s car. Since shopping makes Jerry “have to go,” he gives into his organic nature for ten seconds. But a security guard spots him and takes Jerry into custody. Does the security guard have a right to do this? Can Jerry claim that he was falsely imprisoned?
To begin with, while most of Seinfeld takes place in New York City, Jerry mentions that the gang is “at some mall in Jersey.” Thus, we will apply New Jersey law to this situation.
So who is actually detaining Jerry. If it was a police officer, then we wouldn’t have much of a problem. But in this case, it appears to be a mall security office – not an actual police officer. The security officer is wearing a badge that says “security officer,” and he even says to Jerry: “You can tell the police all about it.”
Since we know this is a private person attempting to detain another private person, we look to the New Jersey statute for false imprisonment, which outlaws when someone “restrains another unlawfully so as to interfere substantially with his liberty.”
The security officer could have some defenses to this charge right off the bat. The first defense offered by the the security officer might be that he was enforcing what is known as the “shopkeeper’s privilege” which permits a storeowner who has “probable cause” for believing that a person has shoplifted, may detain that person “in a reasonable manner for not more than a reasonable time” so as to recover the property. Even before we analyze what would be reasonable in this situation, the key problem for the security officer here is that there is no evidence whatsoever that Jerry or George stole anything, and no reason for the security officer to believe that they did. As such, it is unlikely this defense will apply.
So, next, we need to look at the elements of false imprisonment. Under New Jersey law, there are four factors to a claim of false imprisonment:
- Restrains another;
- Substantial interference with liberty.
As with our other criminal law analysis, knowingly just indicates that the security officer was acting intentionally. It seems pretty clear that the security officer was acting intentionally in this instance.
Let’s also assume that the officer acted unlawfully (we’ll address this in more detail below).
So they key question is whether the security officer either restrained Jerry or substantially interfered with his liberty. We here at SeinfeldLaw think that the answer to that question is going to be no. We see that the security officer sort of guides Jerry by the arm, but does not handcuff him or act rough with him in any way. And once Jerry is in the security room, Jerry appears free to leave at any time. While we don’t see what would happen if Jerry tried to leave, we know Jerry is not handcuffed and the door does not appear to be locked. The key to this analysis is whether the security officer actually “restrained” Jerry in any way. Jerry was never handcuffed, and while he was put in the room with the security officer, he was never told he could not leave and the door was not locked. He could have easily just walked right out. We think this does not qualify as restraint.
As one final note, the Security Officer could also claim that he was enforcing a citizen’s arrest, which permits even a private citizen to detain someone breaking the law until formal law enforcement can arrive. We don’t know exactly if Jerry’s unique condition is criminalized in New Jersey though. Either way, while we don’t know exactly how long Jerry and George were detained, we can assume it was no more than 15 minutes or so which seems like a reasonable amount of time to wait for police. And Jerry himself declares that he was “arrested.” So we can also assume that the police eventually did arrive and write a ticket for Jerry.
But if you want to avoid this whole charade, just hold it in.