Some crimes are less serious than others. In "Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking", Jaywalking is typically thrown in just for laughs.note For those not in the US, jaywalking is crossing the street without using a designated pedestrian crosswalk and is the archetypal "crime so minor it doesn't even qualify as a misdemeanor." However, sometimes the smallest crimes have really serious consequences. This trope is for when the crime is treated as minor and the consequences are a matter of punishment and ostracism.
Let's say that Bob jaywalks. Not a car within a thousand miles, perfectly safe. But a cop arrests him. This makes his boss consider Bob a "criminal", and fires him. His wife, not wanting to be married to an unemployed criminal, divorces him.
Of course, whether a crime is considered a misdemeanor or a felony depends on various individual and cultural values. When Values Dissonance ensues, a point and counterpoint should be listed.
Compare and contrast:
Life Will Kill You, where the authors do treat the misbehaviour as minor and forgivable but it still leads to disastrous accidents.
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Judge Dredd is built on this. Littering, for example, usually carries a sentence between six months and two years, and Walter the Robot was arrested for throwing a cream pie to stop a criminal about to kill Dredd.
In one Punisher story, Frank has been brainwashed by his archenemy Jigsaw and is set out for blood. He starts killing jaywalkers, red light runners, and litterers.
Jigsaw himself has been known to impersonate Frank and behave similarly. Frank also once ran up against a group of vigilantes who included among their number Elite, a rich man who just kills people who do things he doesn't like - a hot dog stand? In his neighborhood?
The Strontium Dog story arc "The Rammy" is a Law Procedural in which a lawyer accuses the Bounty Hunter protagonists of breaking the law in an elaborate scheme to reap a large monetary reward from said bounties. The charges are murder, conspiracy to murder, assault, fraudulent misrepresentation of a sporting contest, conspiracy to defraud actual fraud, drunk and disorderly conduct, and committing a nuisance in a public place. Given their line of work and the rights and privileges that gives them, the bounty hunters are eventually cleared of all charges except, of course, drunk and disorderly conduct and public nuisance. They're punished to the full extent of the law for this, which is a 3 million credit fine for each person (almost all their earnings from the entire scheme).
In Female Perversions, the main character's sister gets arrested for shoplifting. She can't pay the fine/bail, so she is kept in jail. Because of this, she risks missing getting her doctorate, tarnishing her academic career.
In the film The 51st State, also known as Formula 51, Samuel L. Jackson, just fresh from graduating college with a degree in pharmacology, is pulled over by a patrolman and caught smoking marijuana. His arrest and conviction prevents his employment as a pharmacologist. Unable to work as a pharmacologist, he turns to a life of crime.
Invoked in First Blood, the original Rambo-movie: Rambo gets picked up by the police for 'Vagrancy', which leads to them messing with him and dredging up his Vietnam-war trauma, which leads to rapidly escalating troubles, which leads to several dead cops and, eventually, Rambo working a prison-quarry. Towards the end of the movie, during the police's Hope Spot when they think they've managed to kill him, Rambo's old general has this to say:
Trautman: Vagrancy, wasn't it? That's gonna look real good on his grave stone in Arlington: Here lies John Rambo, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, survivor of countless incursions behind enemy lines. Killed for vagrancy in Jerkwater, USA.
This is the premise of "One Million Yen and the Nigamushi Onna", where Suzuko's life is actually ruined for having thrown out her roommate's belongings.
The Kevin Bacon movie Murder in the First has the main character imprisoned in Alcatraz as a youth for stealing $5 from a general store (granted, the store doubled as a post office, making the crime a felony.) The film actually is concerned with his other crimes, and excessive punishments, since... but still.
The movie explores a very difficult conundrum - if you are sent to jail wrongfully and kill another inmate while in detention, are you legally accountable for that crime that would have never happened if the wrongful sentence hadn't been given in the first place? Keep in mind that the accused here has limited mental capacities and ability to tell right from wrong.
Played for absurdity in Dogma, when the angel Loki murders an entire board of directors for being idolaters and for their various personal sins, except for one member of the board who turns out to be a pure soul. He then threatens to murder her for not saying "God bless you" when he sneezed. Bartleby talks him out of doing so.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure had the hard-boiled Mickey character on the run after breaking out of jail. He was imprisoned for the same crime as the Serta sheep. Or so he claims.
Played for laughs in Mystery Team, where sneaking into movies, sticking fingers into pies and taking two milks at lunch are Serious Business
Horrible Bosses: Dale got drunk at a bar that was next to a playground, and committed public urination. It was night, and there were no kids there, but he's still a registered sex offender. And Motherfucker Jones spent 10 years in prison for pirating Snow Falling On Cedars.
Stephen: You broke the only rule in politics. You wanna be president? You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can't fuck the interns. They get you for that.
This is a major element of Les Misérables, in which the main character serves years on a chain gang for stealing bread to feed his family. Even after serving his time, he continues to be stained as a criminal because of this act.
One of Larry Niven's themes in his Known Space universe is that of body-part replacement technology. At one point (the novel A Gift From Earth centers around it), the demand for replacement parts is so high that crimes like running stop signs and littering are punishable by the death penalty (so that your parts could go into the organ banks).
Less of an example now due to Society Marches On, but in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, the main character is convicted for statutory rape, a crime many considered laughable and "not a real crime" back in the days when the book was written and the film adaptation was made. He accepts the offer to be placed in an asylum instead of a jail, but once there he gets horrified with how the staff treats the inmates including himself. They eventually shut him up by literally destroying his brain. After the lobotomy, one of his friends gives him a mercy killing and then finally follow his previous advice and escapes.
In K.J. Parker's novel Sharps, former Master Swordsman turned merchant Phrantzes is roped into coaching a fencing team on a (supposed) good will mission to an enemy country because of this. Phrantzes marries a former courtesan, and to "help him out", is given a sex manual by his best friend. The manual is technically banned but widely read. Shortly afterward, Phrantzes is arrested for owning the book, and also faces imprisonment and a huge fine for initially lying to officers, and while the case is pending, his wife is also imprisoned. The book implies that Phrantzes's friend and/or his wife (who suggested the sex manual) were in on a Government Conspiracy that needed a reason to blackmail him.
Live Action TV
In one episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the detectives uncover that a man has misplaced some paperwork. For this misdemeanor, they get his cell phone tagged so they can follow him around everywhere. They also do some intensive lobbying - trying to convince a lot of women to hate him, eventually leading one of them to murder him.
There was also the time they're tracking a suspected rapist and murderer who they know did it, but can't hold him. Every effort to get evidence before he flies off fails, until Stabler arrests and holds him for jaywalking across an airport crosswalk.
Grimm: A blonde and her boyfriend broke into a house just for fun, the house they broke into happens to be inhabited by a family of Jägerbar who capture them, and decide to use them as part of their "rite of passage" in which case they hunt them in the woods. By the time the police rescue them, they are still arrested for breaking and entry and vandalism.
In Grand Theft Auto games, the slightest bump into a police car apparently gives cops enough of a reason to try and arrest you in and of itself. Police in real life have a number of good reasons for doing this (making sure it was really an accident, that the violator isn't mentally or physically unstable and is in a good enough condition to be out and about in public, that no collateral damage was inflicted, etc.) but the ones in this series aren't doing it for the sake of thoroughness, they're just really that brutal and corrupt.
In the older Hitman games, just running or even walking "suspiciously" can get you shot.
The original Assassins Creed had guards that would attack Altair just for running in a crowded area.
They would also attempt to kill you if you rode a horse past them at anything other than a slow walk. It makes sense, since riding a horse at full sprint is more than enough to be suspicious of your character and they're trying to prevent damages to people and property.
In Half-Life 2, the guard near the beginning of the game would assault the player for not putting a can (that was already there) in the bin, repeatedly attempting to gain passage without placing the can in the bin would result in the player being being beaten to death.
The guards will also react this way if you invade their personal space.
One arc in The Order of the Stick does this, wherein Belkar and Roy are sentenced to the live out the rest of their lives as gladiators for not having entrance papers.
In Sluggy Freelance Torg, because he shouted something at an airport that included the words "blow them up" and "kill everyone", gets sent to the Guantanamo Bay prison as an enemy combatant. The only thing that gets him released is something even more inconsequential: his "viking heritage" apparently let him pass their "Caucasianometer".
In The Simpsons episode "Homer At the Bat", Steve Sax is pulled over by Eddie and Lou for speeding and ends up being charged with every unsolved crime in Springfield.
Another episode had Homer speeding and getting pulled over. He admitted to speeding and wanted to just take the fine but instead they threw him in jail for the night. Maybe not that bad compared to the others on this page but Homer thought he only had a matter of hours left to live and he wanted to spend it with his family.
In Danny Phantom's Bad Future Episode, Danny cheats on his CAT test. Indirectly causing his friends and family to die. Which causes him to ask his nemesis for help. Which prompts his nemesis to remove his ghost half from him. Who then kills his human half. And then becomes just about the most evil villain the series ever had.
There's that Bad Future Episode of Darkwing Duck where he turns into the fearsome Darkwarrior Duck, ruling St. Canard with an iron fist and levying harsh punishments on even the most minor offenses. Lifetime imprisonment for jaywalking, maybe... or was it littering? Either way it was probably moot, Darkwarrior considered having high cholesterol a crime.
One episode of The Batman has The Joker begin dressing as Batman and assaulting people who commit minor infractions (And his Batmobile is a go-kart...). Security camera footage shows a guy missing when he tries to throw a can behind his back into a trash can, the Joker swoops in on him and drags him screaming into the shadows. In that same Batman cartoon, The Joker poisoned the mayor's wife for having too many items in the express checkout lane at a supermarket.
In one episode of COPS, the new Justice Unit police robots are seen from the very beginning to be very hard on very small offenses. "Crime: Jaywalking! Verdict: Guilty! Sentence: Four years hard labor!" They dole out similar sentences on a guy whose hat blew off in the wind ("littering") and a guy who parked illegally. Later, when Berserko and Ms. Demeanor rob a bank, the Justice Units let them go and claim the overwhelming evidence as "circumstantial" - as we see, the Justice Units were a plot by the Big Boss to get free rein to do whatever he wants.
The justice system in Sponge Bob Square Pants pretty much is this trope. If you litter, if you have no front license plate, IF YOU RUN A STOP SIGN; you better believe they will be ready to take you to jail.
In American Dad! there was a woman in a Saudi Arabian prison who was sentence to life in jail, and had her hand amputated. Her crime? Stealing a candy when she was a kid.
In The Powerpuff Girls Bubbles has gone into Knight Templar mode, where she beat up a guy for stepping on a single blade of grass, and another guy for littering, before his wrapper touched the ground.
Taz-Mania: In "The Origin of the Beginning of the Incredible Taz-Man", Taz gets arrested for attempting to remove junk mail from someone's letterbox.
Bill Clinton was impeached for having an extramarital affair in the Oval Office.
Impeachment is just the first two stages. Bill only got in trouble for perjury, because he lied under oath about having an extramarital affair... had he just said "I like thick chicks," he'd have been fine from a legal standpoint. He no doubt lost a few points for trying to question the definition of "is" as well.
In California the Vehicle Code states that there is an implied crosswalk at any public access driveway, so it shouldn't be jaywalking if you cross next to where a store's driveway lets out onto the street.
The case of Raquel Nelson, who elected to jaywalk from the bus stop to reach home across the street, as opposed to walking over half a mile, burdened with bags of groceries while keeping track her three tired young children, to cross through nearest painted crosswalknote Georgia roads are infamously unfriendly to pedestrians, bicyclists, and basically anyone not in a high-speed vehicle. A drunk drivernote who is also partially blind, took pain meds, and has a history of DUI hit the group, killing her son. The kicker? She gets convicted of second-degree vehicular homicide, reckless conduct, and yes, jaywalking!She doesn't even own a car!! The drunk driver, who was on his third DUI accident, plead outnote He was originally charged with hit and run, first degree homicide by vehicle and cruelty to children. and served a mere 6 months for hit-and-run (with the rest of the 5-year sentence on probation), while she gets 36 months! The conviction was later changed to community service and probation.
Way too many cases with the Sex Offender List. Public Urination or sleeping with your underage girlfriend despite you're only one year older than her? You're treated the same as Child molesters and violent rapists. You can get on the list even if you weren't convicted.
Vagrancy laws are written to invoke this trope. Many cities keep a law stating that you must have a photo ID and $10 cash on hand while in public. If you can't produce these items, it's vagrancy. Cops use this to pull someone off the street that they know is up to no good (like an obvious drug dealer) but they can't prove anything of the higher crime. But if you piss off a cop on a particular bad day for him, he could use it to ruin your day.