On appeal from judgment of the Supreme Court, whose opinion is reported in 111 N.J.L. 172.
For the appellants, James A. Hamill (William George, of counsel).
For the respondents, William L. Rae.
The opinion of the court was delivered by
HEHER, J. This is an appeal from a judgment of the Supreme Court, affirming a judgment of the First District Court of Jersey City, in favor of plaintiffs, in an action in tort for false imprisonment.
On September 18th, 1932, respondents, while driving through the city of Jersey City, in an automobile owned and operated by Smith, were intercepted by appellants in the performance of their duties as police officers, assigned to service in the traffic bureau of the city's police department. Respondents were residents of the State of Oklahoma. They were students en route to their respective universities in New England. The vehicle bore Oklahoma registration plates. It resembled an automobile that had been stolen in the city of Newark the day before, and it was stopped to afford the police officers an opportunity to determine whether it was the stolen car. An examination of the motor number disclosed that it was not. The officers demanded the production of the registration certificate and driver's license. Smith did not possess a driver's license. He informed the officers that such a license was not required by the laws of his state. Respondents testified that they were then informed by the officers that they "would be held for investigation." They were taken
by the officers to a nearby station house, and placed in the "reserve room." They were advised that "they would have to remain there until the investigation was completed." While they were not locked in the room, one of the officers remained with them, and it cannot be gainsaid that they were detained pending the investigation. When it was ascertained that the laws of Oklahoma did not require the licensing of motor vehicle operators, they were released. There was no complaint charging a violation of law. Respondents testified that they were detained from six P.M. to eight P.M., while appellants insist that the period of detention did not exceed forty minutes. But this divergence in the testimony does not relate to a material matter. It is not suggested that a detention, originally lawful, became unlawful because unreasonably prolonged. It is claimed that the detention was unlawful ab initio, and it was on this theory that the cause was tried and determined in the District Court, and the judgment sustained in the Supreme Court.
The sole ground for reversal urged by appellants is that there was justification for the detention of respondents, and that, therefore, the evidence did not warrant a judgment in their favor. This claim is well founded. The gist of the action for false imprisonment is an unlawful detention. The essential thing is the constraint of the person, without legal justification. Hebrew v. Pulis, 73 N.J.L. 621; Wiegand v. Meade, 108 Id. 471. Imprisonment or any restraint of the personal liberty of another is actionable, when done without lawful authority. "Imprisonment is any restraint of the personal liberty of another; any prevention of his movements from place to place, or his free action according to his own pleasure and will; a man is imprisoned when he is under the control of another in these respects or either of them, against his own will. It is false imprisonment when this is done without lawful authority, and such imprisonment is deemed an assault in law, though no assault in fact is made; the one includes both offenses, the act being unlawful." Johnson v. Tompkins, 13 Fed. Cas. No. 7416; 1 Baldw. 571, 600. The
fundamental difference between an action for malicious prosecution, and one for false imprisonment, is that in the former the detention is malicious, but under the due forms of law, whereas in the latter the detention is without color of legal authority. Johnson v. Girdwood, 28 N.Y. Supp. 151; affirmed, 143 N.Y. 660; 39 N.E. Rep. 21; Johnstone v. Sutton, 1 T.R. 544; 99 Reprint 1243; 1 E.R.C. 765; Pandjiris v. Hartman, 196 Mo. 539, 545; 94 S.W. Rep. 270.
The inquiry therefore is whether there was legal justification for the detention of respondents. The Supreme Court, in answering this in the negative, invoked the common law rule that, to prevent the escape of a felon, a peace officer had authority to arrest anyone whom he reasonably suspected to have been engaged in the perpetration of a felony, and that, to prevent breaches of the peace, he had the right to arrest any person who was engaged in, or in his presence threatened to engage in, an affray or other breach of the peace, and that beyond this the law did not allow him to exercise the function of determining whether there was a sufficient cause for an arrest. Mayor, &c., of Newark, v. Murphy, 40 N.J.L. 145; Brown v. State, 62 Id. 666; Collins v. Cody, 95 Id. 65.
But the authority to arrest, in the circumstances here presented, is derived from chapter 208 of the laws of 1921 (Pamph. L. 1921, p. 643), as amended by chapter 171 of the laws of 1931. Pamph. L. 1931, p. 347. This act requires the registration of all automobiles driven in this state, whether owned by residents or non-residents, and the licensing of operators of such vehicles. It directs that the driver's license shall have endorsed thereon the name of the licensee, in his own handwriting, and that this license and the registration certificate shall be in the possession of the driver or operator at all times when the driver or operator is in charge of the vehicle on the highways of the state. A further requirement is that the driver shall, when so requested by a police officer engaged in the performance of his ...