The cart comes rumbling up to the gates. The Evil Overlord's guards poke about, and find a jug under the seat. Fool peasant thought he could sneak some moonshine past them. They take it, and the cart rumbles on — with the rightful king hidden under its cargo.
Infraction Distraction is when a conspicious but minor infraction — possibly not even illegal but merely disreputable — is made up or committed for the purposes of distracting authorities from something much more serious. Not unlike a Kansas City Shuffle, the guards in question know they're being tricked, but are wrong about what the trick is. If you actually confess, it's Confess to a Lesser Crime, but you can also manufacture evidence against yourself or otherwise plant clues to the infraction. One common method is to plant an Incredibly Obvious Tail — to distract from the skilled and subtle tail. Incredibly Obvious Bug can also be used, but is less common.
Overlaps with Embarrassing Cover Up if the decoy secret is disreputable as well as prohibited (or if the character is so Lawful Good or such a Slave to PR that being caught breaking even minor rules is an embarrassment in and of itself). Overlap with We Need a Distraction is possible but rare, since it usually is not to enable further actions. If a character points out some other, unassociated character's wrongdoing, that's Go Look at the Distraction. If a suspect is surprisingly quick to confess their Big Secret, there's a good chance it's this. See also Hidden in Plain Sight. A Censor Decoy is this used in Real Life to get crap past the radar.
The opposite is Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot.
Anime and Manga
In the first chapter of Bloody Monday, Fujimaru (a teenager) tells his younger sister he's going to check out his porn downloads, just so she doesn't enter his room to catch him hacking. It's suggested that he also used porn video games as a cover for hacking jobs, though it's never denied that he played them.
This is one of the many tactics employed by Light in Death Note to hide his possession of the titular book. When he realizes that his room has been bugged, he lets them catch him reading porn, in order to make it appear that his security-precautions were put in place to prevent his parents or sibling from finding his Porn Stash. Made even more awkward by the fact that his father is one of the investigators watching the tapes.
Similarly, Madarame from Genshiken had some porn DVDs in a drawer to serve as a decoy to prevent the other club members from discovering something else in that drawer: photos of Kasukabe cosplaying.
Golgo 13. In the anime episode "Pretty Woman", a Mafia boss finds that his mistress has secretly met someone in a hotel room. She 'confesses' that she slept with his underling (untrue, as she loathed him) to hide that she was meeting Duke there to arrange the boss's assassination.
In My Friend Tom when Harry is breaking into Snape's office to investigate he carries dungbombs in his pocket in case he's caught so that Snape won't know he's onto him and will just assume he's just setting up a stupid prank.
Inverted in the plots of the first and thirdDie Hard movies; thefts are disguised by terrorist attacks.
Les Brigades du Tigre. The Russian princess who is working with a French anarchist (also her lover) to expose her husband's corruption tells the prince that she's having an affair with the protagonist, Commissaire Valentin. Unfortunately her jealous husband then decides to murder Valentin.
In The Dogs of War, Shannon plants a Playboy magazine and a bottle of whiskey in his luggage for the customs official to 'confiscate' so he doesn't look too closely at anything else he is bringing in.
in Seven, the Professor plants an inflatable sex doll in his luggage, which then inflates when customs opens his bag. Everyone is so embarassed that they just wave him through without spotting the weapon components he had hidden in his luggage.
This joke (various local permutations exist):
Tuan comes up to the border between Vietnam and China on his bicycle. He has two large bags over his shoulders. The guard stops him and says, "What's in the bags?" "Rice," answered Tuan. The guard says, "We'll just see about that. Get off the bike." The guard takes the bags and rips them apart; he empties them out and finds nothing in them but rice. He detains Tuan overnight and has the rice analyzed, only to discover that there is nothing but pure rice in the bags. The guard releases Tuan, puts the rice into new bags, hefts them onto the man's shoulders, and lets him cross the border. A week later, the same thing happens. The guard asks, "What have you got?" "Rice," says Tuan. The guard does his thorough examination and discovers that the bags contain nothing but rice. He gives the rice back to Tuan, and Tuan crosses the border on his bicycle. This sequence of events is repeated every day for three years. Finally, Tuan doesn't show up one day and the guard meets him in a noodles restaurant in Vietnam. "Hey, Buddy," says the guard, "I know you are smuggling something. It's driving me crazy. It's all I think about..... I can't sleep. Just between you and me, what are you smuggling?" Tuan sips his beer and says, "Bicycles."
Here's a Snopes page with more variants on the "stealing bicycles" joke.
Robert A. Heinlein loved this trope, not only using it but making it a piece of wisdom for the Mentor to hand on.
In Starman Jones, Matt hitchhikes with a truck driver, who has him sleep in the bed and explains that he will be the off-duty driver all the time, with the driver with him driving longer than regulations permit without sleep. When they hit a checkpoint, the driver is caught not having his asleep partner having signed off, and explains to Matt that it kept the guard from digging deeper.
In "If This Goes On....", Zach covers up Johnny's obviously guilty reaction to receiving a note from the Resistance by replacing it with one about gambling, because they won't believe innocence but will believe this.
In Podkayne of Mars, the main character's brother makes a crack about smuggling drugs onto the space ship, thereby preventing the guards from discoving the bomb he hid in her luggage.
In a Labyrinth, when caught trying to break into a genetic engineering facility, one of Miles' subordinates quickly posed as a horny soldier on leave who thought it was the brothel (the company is known for its bordellos). The subordinate got booted out with a warning; Miles, already inside, was safe, though isolated.
One of the stories about one of Miles' ancestors has him using the "smuggling bicycles" tactic (see Jokes above), to smuggle horses into a besieged city. Miles does it with warships.
In Mary Steward's This Rough Magic, Godfrey admits to smuggling to distract from his actual attempts at destabilizing nations with counterfeit currency and attempted murder.
In Codex Alera, Captain Demos lets a few port inspectors find some assorted contraband to keep them from searching too thoroughly for Varg.
In A Deepness in the Sky, Pham Trinly pretends to secretly be an old slave-trader he knew once, letting the villain currently in charge 'discover' it and think he therefore has Pham squarely under his thumb. This "small lie to cover the big one" hides the fact that he is actually Pham Nuwen, the legendary trader, space navigator, and politician, and by far the most dangerous person in the fleet and easily the greatest threat to the villain's rule.
In Terry Pratchett's Making Money, Moist uses Suspiciously Specific Denial to imply he's in bed with a woman, to cover up that he's the man who broke into the Post Office. What makes being in bed with a woman an example of this trope is the fact that his girlfriend was currently out of town.
The Boy Who Knew Too Much by Roderic Jeffries. A youth breaks into an abandoned factory on a bet and finds himself pursued by masked thugs. He has trouble getting anyone to believe him, but a few days later the criminals steal the copper piping from the building, so the police think that's what it was all about. It's only when the boy remembers that he saw one of the men looking through a telescopic sight that the police realise the building overlooks a nearby prison, and the criminals are planning a jailbreak.
This is part of the plot in The California Voodoo Game. Bishop tries to make everybody including his accomplice think he's trying to fix the Game, but in reality he's committing industrial espionage. Averted in that nobody believes for a second that's all Bishop is really up to, but subverted again in that, while they think he's trying to steal information, he's actually trying to find a way to circumvent the security system so that his handlers can steal anything they like in the future.
There is a variation in Isaac Asimov's short story The Singing Bell, where a policeman mentions every crook tries to get caught andProbed for a pocket theft. Said Probe is a somewhat risky procedure, and no man can be subjected to it more than once. You do the math.
Subverted in Frasier. After finding out that his wife Daphne broke into his confidential files in order to learn more about a patient with a crush on him, Niles furiously reads her the riot act on the seriousness of breaches of doctor-patient confidentiality, and exclaims "This is the absolute worst thing you could have possibly done!" Daphne pauses for a moment, then says "You would think so", before reluctantly confessing that actually, she had then stalked the patient in question, used Roz to gain access to the patient's office, and ransacked the place looking for information.
Another episode plays it straight, when the Cranes while on a road trip end up taking Daphne into Canada without realizing that her working visa doesn't permit her to cross the border. When they get pulled over by customs on re-entering the United States, everyone's guilty-trying-not-act-guilty appearances immediately convince the customs official that something's up, leading Martin to reluctantly reveal the truth... he doesn't have a permit for Eddie (the dog) to enter the country. On learning that Martin's an ex-cop, the customs official is satisfied with Martin's explanation and lets them pass without ever learning about Daphne.
A variation in Sherlock, episode The Great Game: Sherlock immediately deduces that Molly's new boyfriend Jim is secretly gay. Jim plays that particular role so that Sherlock would ignore him due to the belief that the former's interest in him was a mere romantic infatuation, which covered up the fact that he was interested in Sherlock because he is Jim Moriarty, Diabolical Mastermind and the show's major villain.
Dexter later manages an accidental example when Doakes catches him at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, which he was only attending as part of lie for his girlfriend. It gets Doakes off his case, at least for a while.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In "Band Candy" Buffy tells her mother that she's training with Giles, then tells Giles that she needs to help her mother. She then goes off to care for Angel, who she hasn't told anyone is Back from the Dead. She goes home to find Joyce and Giles there comparing notes, so Buffy lets them think she's been neglecting school and Slayer duties by partying at the Bronze.
Inverted in Community, where Starburns confesses to stealing lab equipment to build a meth lab to get out of being accused of destroying someone's school project. Fortunately, the people he's talking to aren't really cops.
Used in Orphan Black to hide incriminating evidence. When the character realizes that his wife is trying to open a locked box in the garage, he replaces the contents with porn videos in the hope that she will think that's what he was trying to hide and stop looking further.
Used more than once in The A-Team. In one episode, Face creates forged papers that are already expired. Once the guards see the expiration they stop examining the rest, after which he produces a new document extending the expiration date - by which time the guards have already forgotten about examining the rest of the original paperwork and let them proceed.
Burn Notice: Michael's go-to cover when caught breaking and entering is usually a disgruntled employee or a drunken vandal.
In one op, Michael's mom steals data from a detective's computer while Michael distracts him. He can only stall for so long before the detective returns, to find a guilty looking Maddy. "You caught me!" she says, as Michael and the viewers' hearts stop. He caught her sneaking a cigarette, that is.
Paranoia: A few citizens have registered mutations they don't actually have, such as chronic runny nose (his real mutation was about to be reported, but citizens with multiple mutations are nearly unheard of) or temporary blindness (so he could take bribes from fellow traitors to look the other way).
Subverted in the first case of the first game, where the criminal committed murder, so they wouldn't go to jail for breaking & entering.
Of course, killers always commit perjury on the stand, however apart from the three examples in which they confess to a smaller crime, these lies are intended to be that...lies, and so they expect people to not even know they committed a crime anyway.
In "Lobsterfest", the kids try to convince Bob that they are looking at porn when actually, they are studying a pamphlet for the lobster festival - Which is something Bob is against, since seafood festivals take away attention from his burger restaurant.
In "Hamburger Dinner Theatre", Linda claims that she's going to a stag party at a strip club. Actually, she's going to a dinner theatre performance. Again, this is something Bob is against, because watching dinner theatre performances makes Linda hammy. He even says outright that he would have preferred it if she was going to a strip club.
Insurance Agent: Now this place you were at, Moe's, is this a business of some sort? Homer's Brain: Don't tell him you were at a bar! *gasp* But what else is open at night? Homer: It's a pornography store. I was buying pornography. Homer's Brain: Heh heh heh. I would'a never thought of that.
This is the principle behind "deniable encryption" systems, designed to address the situation where someone in possession of encrypted files is coerced (by physical force or plea bargaining, say) into handing over the decryption key. These systems allow data to be hidden on several different "layers", each requiring a separate key to access the data - for example, someone could store their porn collection at the first layer, squickier porn at the second layer, and military state secrets at the third. The trick is that it's mathematically impossible for the interrogator to know how many layers are in use (and it is also possible to have more than one volume at the same layer, for example having two second- or third-layer volumes), since anything they haven't decrypted yet is indistinguishable from random garbage - so at any point the subject can plausibly claim that they've handed over all the keys they have, and the interrogator has no way to be sure whether they're dealing with an actual spy or just a very paranoid pervert.
After 9/11, TSA employees were rigorously trained to catch the various items newly banned from airplane carry-on baggage. A test of the system found that the security officers would often spot a lighter - and miss the bomb parts in the same bag.
If one is being almostcaught doing something (be it porn or a Guilty Pleasure or something else), it's always better to have something else to be "caught" with, thus explaining both being flustered and avoiding the Awkward Silence that occurs when you are found staring at your blank desktop all the time with. As one YouTube commenter put it:
Commenter: My mom walked in while I was watching MLP. Luckily I managed to alt-tab to my porn.
"Limited hangout" is a technique of attempting to defuse a scandal by admitting to some misdeeds in the hope of convincing people that you've come clean and there is nothing more to be discovered.
This trick was used by an escaping Allied POW in WWII. The POW was stuck in a train station, unable to leave because a group of Nazi soldiers were guarding the exits and checking papers. Knowing that trying to bluff his way past wasn't going to work, he snatched the suitcase from the nearest commuter and sprinted straight past the guards out of the exit. Not interested in a mere thief, the nazis didn't chase him.