Selective Enforcement

One character sees another getting away with something that is against the rules. If he speaks up everyone ignores him. So he decides to join in, and commits some very minor violation. He is immediately caught and has the book thrown at him.

Almost always played as comedy trope, this trope can range from a single scene to a whole plotline. It is is rarely done as drama, despite the dramatic potential. It is a fairly subversive trope, showing a poor fit between actions and consequence.

See also Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking. Can be related to Can't Get Away with Nuthin', or Can't Get In Trouble For Nuthin'. If someone tries to imitate the Karma Houdini, they'll end up like this. Protagonist-Centered Morality would be a subtrope of this. This is very much Truth in Television - in some online forums as well as in Real Life.


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  • This happens a lot in Ranma ½.
    • For example, most of Ranma and Akane's fights are either Akane's fault (when she keeps jumping to negative conclusions about Ranma, or trying to feed him terrible cooking), or Ranma's fault (when he keeps insulting her). The problem is that because Akane is surrounded by family and friends that are close to her, and because Ranma's only close relation is his father (who is almost never on his side, anyway), Ranma's usually the only one being punished, while Akane gets away scot-free. This has served as Fanfic Fuel for a lot of fanfics in which Ranma finally gets fed up with this situation, but in the actual anime/manga he seems to take it pretty well with only some token grumbling.
    • Another example is the fights between Ranma and Ryoga. Ryoga has the advantage of sometimes posing as P-chan, Akane's favorite pet. So when Ranma and Ryoga get into disagreements, all Ryoga has to do is turn into P-chan, and Akane will always side against Ranma for "picking on a poor defenseless pig".

    Comic Books 
  • In a story of Iznogoud, the eponymous evil vizier tries repeatedly to have the Caliph commit a diplomatic faux-pas with a Mongolian ambassador, which would force him to either step down, resign his position or possibly even be killed on the spot by the outraged representative. No matter what the vizier suggests, however, it results in the Caliph getting a cheerful, happy response for somehow following some bizarre and obscure tradition of his visiting guests. Then Iznogoud says "drat" in response to the last of his failures, which results in the ambassador angrily taking offense to that word, and demanding the vizier's life in slavery lest war be declared on the spot. The Caliph gleefully agrees, insisting that "his good vizier would surely agree in the interest of peace." Gilligan Cut to Iznogoud being dragged off in chains wondering what the hell just happened.

    Fan Fic 
  • Rosario Vampire: Brightest Darkness:
    • During most of Act III, Headmaster Mikogami repeatedly does next to nothing about the various bullies and Jerkasses who deliberately go out of their way to torment and harass Tsukune and his friends, but punishes Tsukune and co. for simply acting in legitimate self-defense against said bullies and Jerkasses, to the extent that he threatens to separate them if they get into another fight. He changes his tune after chapters 29 and 30, after the girls are blackmailed and nearly raped by Kano, who took advantage of Mikogami's warning to do exactly that.
    • Throughout Act VI, after discovering Arial's Jerk with a Heart of Gold nature and reconciling with her, Dark more or less sits back and does nothing while she repeatedly attacks Mizore, both physically and verbally, in response to Mizore trying to win her approval and make peace with her. While this case is somewhat justified, since Arial is his guardian angel and Dark needs her approval to live, it doesn't change the fact that he lets Arial get away with it when in the previous five acts, he had, at the very least, put numerous other people in the hospital for merely looking at Mizore the wrong way.

  • Anger Management centers on this trope. An excessively passive man is sentenced to anger management classes for allegedly (but not really) starting a commotion on an airplane. And it happens again, each time with him accidentally insulting or harming a woman/ disabled person/ ethnic minority that would ensure that no jury would pity him. It was all a Massive Multiplayer Scam, with these manipulative folk being presented as the good guys. Except the guy with the tazer. He was just having a bad day.
  • Outlaw playes the trope straight for drama. In the film, the London Metropolitan Police is horrendously ineffective at dealing with professional criminals and hooligans, but when the protagonists form a vigilance committee and start beating up dealers and robbing money launderers a corrupt cop turns them into public enemy #1. 2/3rds of the remaining protagonists wind up getting gunned down by armed Flying Squad members in the end.
  • Bicycle Thieves: A non-comedic example is this classic Italian film. The protagonist, Antonio, has his bicycle stolen which he needs for his job. Eventually, he tracks down the thief, but the police lets him go, because Antonio doesn't have any proof and his neighbors lie for him. Out of desperation, Antonio tries to steal a bicycle himself, and is caught immediately.

    Game Shows 
  • The general rule of thumb on game shows is if a contestant starts saying an answer before the time's up buzzer starts to sound, it counts. However, quite a few shows have been lax about allowing answers after the buzzer. Family Feud has always been notoriously bad at this.
  • Password: In all incarnations, contestants and celebrities were not allowed to use hand gestures. However, a few gestures slipped by from time to time while others got zapped.
  • Pyramid: Some clues got by in the upfront game and the Winner's Circle and others got cuckooed or buzzed. A bad example is the Winner's Circle clue "Mulberries" for "Things on a Bush", both on the 80s versions. One time, it led to a $25,000-win and another, it was buzzed. The kick in the pants? On the latter, the contestant had to match $10,000 to come back the next day.
  • Jeopardy! can be strict with spelling during "Final Jeopardy". The general rule is if a misspelling affects the pronunciation, then the answer is ruled incorrect.

  • In the Wayside School books, Todd always gets in trouble three times over the course of the day and is always sent home early on the kindergarten bus. On multiple occasions, this is due to a selective enforcement plot when the rest of the class gets away with things, but he gets caught for a minor infraction. For example, the whole classroom will be talking loudly with the teacher not paying attention, but the second Todd opens his mouth, the entire class is silent and he's caught talking in class. Similarly, one scene has Joy bugging him over what page he's on in the math book, and mocking him for being so far behind her. Her mocking gets very, very loud. But when he finally loses his cool, he's the one who gets in trouble. Immediately after he saved the lives of everyone in the class.
  • Snape from the Harry Potter series is biased and unfair towards the Gryffindors - deducting points from the protagonists and giving them detentions for no cause or for minor infractions - while typically ignoring wrong-doing by Slytherins.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Becker, Dr. Becker makes several attempts to go see a particular movie which fail because of loud, disruptive people in the cinema. At a later attempt he practically gets crucified because Margaret keeps talking to him.
  • In Friends, Ross finds out that students are sneaking into the library stacks for sex (particularly the aisle containing his thesis). The library refuses to do anything about it. He decides to monitor the aisle himself, meets a pretty grad student... and ends up getting caught by the librarian.
  • How I Met Your Mother: Marshall talked his way out of a ticket by offering to bring the cop to his barbecue. Robin, being a pretty girl, can get out of a ticket easily. Barney? No way.
    • It doesn't help that he takes getting out of a ticket as a challenge and proceeds to get a dozen tickets as a means of proving that he can get out of one.
  • Used in Police Squad! when Frank Drebin is trying to goad "The Champ" into accepting a prize fight with Bobby Briggs.
    Frank Drebin: Bobby Briggs could break every bone in your body.
    The Champ: Yeah, well he must be a pretty good boxer.
    Drebin: Well, how would you know? You never won an honest fight in your life.
    The Champ: Hey, take it easy. Nobody wants to get hurt. Just cool off.
    Drebin: Why should I? The only reason you're champ is cause of guys lying down or dying.
    The Champ: Hey, let me buy you a drink.
    Drebin: I wouldn't drink with you, you two-bit phony excuse for a fighter.
    The Champ: You're just tired. [pats Drebin on the cheek] You didn't mean it.
    Bobby Briggs: [to Drebin] Aw, forget it.
    The Champ Forget it? Nobody says "forget it" to me! [takes a swing at Briggs]
  • Happens a lot on The Andy Griffith Show whenever the plot requires it. Andy seems less intent on actually enforcing the law than he is in promoting his own sense of values, and it always seems to work out. Barney, on the other hand, can't seem to tell where to draw the line on anything he's involved in.
  • Drake & Josh when Drake does something wrong no one does anything about it, but when Josh tries to do the same everyone has almost laser precision of what he is doing.

    Video Games 
  • In The Elder Scrolls, most of Tamriel is above the law. In Morrowind or Oblivion, if they slept on the street, the guards would simply get stuck trying to walk over them. You decide to do the same and the guards are right there yelling "STOP RIGHT THERE CRIMINAL SCUM!"
    • Skyrim example: Assaulting a child in public, no problem. Stealing an apple? Arrest and possibly execution on the spot, not to mention several bystanders will try to exact vigilante justice while the guard is talking to you.
  • An early Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas mission has you fleeing on bicycles from gangsters shooting at you with machine guns from a car. The police won't respond even as they stand in the gangster's line of fire, but so help you if your bike bumps into them.
    • This is pretty much the standard for virtually anything in GTA. Although it's common to see officers chasing after other people, the cops will never bust the psycho with the SMG shooting at you from a pimpmobile. Oh, and you'll get stars for shooting back.
    • Subverted in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, while you get stars for shooting back, you also get rewarded for stopping (non-lethally) criminals who are fleeing from cops.
  • Averted in Bully. You cause a problem in front of a Police Officer or Prefect you will get taken down. Some NPC causes a problem (even if its against you) in front of a Police Officer or Prefect he or she will get taken down just the same.
  • The Warriors has the police go after you if you rough up a civilian in their presence, but they won't give two shits if you attack an enemy gang since it's less work for the cops. A cop will even go after your enemies should said enemy's attack hit a cop.


    Western Animation 
  • South Park:
  • The Simpsons
    • In one episode of Lenny and Barney play pranks on Moe which involve setting him on fire and setting a cobra on him. Homer, in an attempt to join in the "harmless" fun loosens the lid on a sugar cellar, resulting in what Moe angrily calls "the old sugar-me-do". This gets Homer banned from the bar.
    • A darker comedic version is played out with Homer and Frank Grimes. When Frank Grimes tries to live and work like Homer does, but quickly discovers that only Homer can grab high-voltage wires without safety gloves and live.
    • In "The Monkey Suit," Chief Wiggum arrests Lisa for teaching her classmates about evolution (which got outlawed and she was rebelling against that rule). She protests that there are much worse crimes, pointing to Snake, who is shooting people from atop the Kwik-E-Mart. Wiggum explains that it's because they only have enough funding to enforce the most recently created law (thus literally "selective enforcement") although Wiggum does admit is "not the best system - in fact it's pretty much the worst."
    • In "Burns' Heir", Homer will allow Bart flinging peas at Lisa, but he grounds him for feeding his meatloaf to the dog (especially because it was an endpiece).
    • Burns also laughs his butt off when Homer throws pudding at Lenny. But the moment he throws one at Carl, Burns snarls at him and goes to help Carl.
    • A series wide case, Sideshow Bob has been foiled multiple times by the Simpsons family, but has outright admitted he is apathetic to all of them except Bart, who he is obsessed with killing in revenge for exposing his first instance of villainy. This is especially apparent with Lisa, who as time has passed has foiled Bob more times than Bart.
  • Invader Zim: In the episode "Parent Teacher Night", everybody is conveniently staring silently in the opposite direction of the mess loudly made by Zim's robotic parents. But after they leave, and Dib tosses his juice cup to the ground in frustration, someone turns around and shouts "Hey! That kid's throwing punch!" and the episode ends with Ms. Bitters descending on Dib like the wrath of God some kind of snaky demonic Satan thing.
  • Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends: Inverted as a Springtime for Hitler in the episode "Crime After Crime". The episode's B-plot has Frankie cooking something disgusting for dinner, so Bloo causes trouble in an effort to get sent to his room without dinner. Unfortunately the episode's A-plot was Mr. Harriman acting hyper-paranoid over someone discovering his addiction to carrots, leading him to punish everyone else in the house for relatively minor infractions due to thinking they're "on to him" while completely ignoring or even congratulating Bloo.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants: In Bikini Bottom, harassing your business rival to near-suicide, destroying stuff because you've got the IQ of a turnip, or being an all-around annoying jackass with No Indoor Voice is perfectly acceptable. Littering, however, can get you an orange jumpsuit. Just ask Squidward or Mrs. Puff.
    • Lampshaded in "Shanghaied". Squidward ends up the Flying Dutchman's punching bag just for talking, Spongebob and Patrick's antics and attempts to escape get only very light snark. Squidward angrily demands why they get off so easy, only to get struck by a punishment bolt again. Deconstructed afterwards, when Squidward won't stop babbling the Flying Dutchman loses patience and kicks him out of his ship, while the other two are kept his prisoners and drive him crazy due to lack of punishment.
  • King of the Hill: After Bill is jailed for public intoxication, he refuses to see anyone - so Hank tries to get himself arrested and get thrown in with him. The cops don't care about him jaywalking on an empty street, and wearing "No shirt, no shoes" in a convenience store only breached store policy. However, a low-speed collision that scratches an officer's kid's "honor roll" bumper sticker gets him cuffed and thrown to the wall.
  • Family Guy:
    • In the episode "420," after Peter accidentally kills Quagmire's pet cat in a prank gone wrong, he and Brian go to bury the body and get pulled over by the police. The cops blatantly ignore the fact that Peter has a small body bag in the backseat and is not only covered head-to-toe in blood, but driving drunk, but when they discover Brian in possession of a quarter-ounce of pot, they arrest him on the spot and throw him in jail.
    • In the episode "Model Misbehavior," while voicing his support for Lois' modeling career, Peter states that he'll "pleasure himself" to Lois' photos, to which both Chris and Meg say "Me too!" In response, Peter calls out Meg, and only Meg, for saying such things about her mother, and when Meg says she was just trying to fit in, Peter responds by punching a hole in the wall and screaming at her to get out of the house.
  • In one 'Mr. Know-It-All' segment of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Bullwinkle tries to show how to get noisy neighbors to be quiet. After trying and failing to get Boris to quiet down his party, Bullwinkle decides 'if you can't beat them, join them' and blows on a party favor. Boris then has Bullwinkle arrested for disturbing his peace.
  • Hey Arnold!!: In the episode "Girl Trouble," Helga relentlessly torments Arnold throughout the episode, and eventually Arnold gets sick of it and throws paint on her in retaliation. Mr. Simmons does nothing about Helga's bullying, but punishes Arnold for dumping paint, vocally expressing his disappointment in him.
  • In Tex Avery's short, Shhhhhh, the hotel management is oppressively strict about quietness when Mr. Twiddle checks in, but then allows the doctor to bring in a trombone and make a huge amount of noise without stopping him.
  • This trope is a recurring theme in Tom and Jerry shorts that feature Spike. When said shorts open, Spike is generally doing his own thing, minding his own business, and gets caught up in Tom and Jerry's antics. Even when Spike clearly sees Jerry causing trouble as well, he always singles out Tom and places all the blame on him, which Jerry proceeds to milk for all its worth throughout the rest of the cartoon.

Alternative Title(s): Flaming Cobra Sugar Cellar