The 25-year-old singer was with girlfriend Eleanor Calder at the arrivals gate of LAX airport when he allegedly had a bust-up with paparazzi.
He had been returning to Los Angeles after the couple enjoyed a holiday in Las Vegas.
A source said a photographer made a citizen's arrest on Tomlinson.
Fashion blogger Calder, who rekindled her romance with the singer last week, is also thought to have been involved in an argument with onlookers who began filming the row.
Tomlinson's lawyer Martin Singer said: "The paparazzi provoked and caused the altercation that occurred with Louis at the airport this morning.
"This is not the first or last time that a paparazzi has created an altercation with a celebrity.
"While the altercation was going on with the paparazzi, three other individuals were attacking his girlfriend during this incident and he came to her defence."
An arrest record from the incident shows that the photographer made a citizen's arrest on Tomlinson and that his alleged offence was classed as a misdemeanour.
The record lists the bail amount due as $20,000 (£16,000), although a source said that as Tomlinson was released under "own recognisance", in which an individual pledges in writing to appear in all court proceedings, he did not have to pay it.
A court date has been set for March 29 at 8.30am, at LAX Superior Court in South LA.
Tomlinson is currently releasing solo material while One Direction are on hiatus.