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Ambiguous Criminal History

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"Hey you, behind the glass! Who're you looking at?" [to Gary] "I've always wanted to say that every time I was in one of these rooms— which was never."
Phoebe in an interrogation room, Friends, "The One With Ball"

A character (usually a side character) who implies that they have committed at least one serious crime, which ultimately goes unexplained. A common example is a character casually mentioning that they have been to jail with no follow-up for context. The tropes can appear as an implication or outright admitting to being a criminal, but in either case there will be little if any context. The general lack of explanation is ultimately what makes the trope and the humor. It can be a simple one-time comment or appear as a full-on Running Gag.


Compare You All Meet in a Cell. Frequently a Noodle Incident. May be a part of a Mysterious Past. An opposite to Ambiguously Trained, where a character is implied to have been in law enforcement or the military.


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    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Aja from Jem and the Holograms mentions going to juvvy. It's never mentioned why she went there, but it's still off for the stick-to-the-rules Only Sane Man Aja from the cartoon.
  • When Mike and Bob are imprisoned in the hut in the native village in Jungle Goddess, Bob remarks that he's been in less comfortable jails than this. On MST3K, Crow replies "That's nothing to be proud of!".
  • In The Magnificent Seven (2016), Robicheaux says he met his partner Billy Rocks when he was serving a warrant on him, but Billy's exact crime is never directly stated (when Faraday jokingly asks, Billy gives him a Death Glare and a non-answer in response).
  • Mickey in Pee-wee's Big Adventure tells Pee-wee he got in trouble with the police because he got angry and used a knife... to cut off one of those mattress tags that say "Do Not Remove Under the Penalty of Law".

  • The Wheel of Time: Laras, the stout old head cook at the White Tower, reveals a hint of her Hidden Depths when she helps Min and the deposed Tower leader escape. She fondly says that Min's Action Girl tendencies remind her of her youth, when she was "near to getting myself hanged, sometimes", but the details are never revealed.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Dead Like Me: The strait-laced office manager Delores offhandedly mentions that her time in The '80s included "cocaine, tattoos, and all those restraining orders", and is quite blasé about bailing George out of jail. She declines to clarify.
  • Friends: Phoebe's Mysterious Past is a frequent source of comedy on the show. At one point she dates a cop who looks at her file and learns she has done "some pretty weird stuff". In one episode, she and her friends are in Vegas and she says this when she believes she is being arrested.
    Phoebe: No, no, you can't arrest me! I won't go back, I won't go back to that hellhole!
  • Eleanor of The Good Place is known to have been a generally selfish person when she was alive and her company scammed elderly people. She occasionally hints that she has a notable criminal record, including working at a place raided by the FBI regularly, being banned from public transportation in her city, and being a frequent defendant in small-claims court.
  • In How I Met Your Mother, Barney's job is poorly defined and highly ambiguous, though it's known that his company does a lot of illegal activity and does a lot business with "our friends the North Koreans". In season eight, his friends kidnap him for his bachelor party and his first instinct upon being thrown into the car is to yell that he never associated with North Korea, and if his kidnappers are North Koreans that he never associated with South Korea.
  • It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: It’s constantly implied that Dennis is probably a Serial Killer and/or sexual predator. He makes numerous creepy remarks (like wanting to pressure women into having sex with him using "the implication" that something might go wrong if they don’t), has a hidden compartment in his car filled with ropes and chloroform for binding, is hinted to be sexually attracted to his own sister (who he verbally abuses), and flies into psychopathic rages at any provocation. Even if he isn’t a criminal, it’s made pretty clear that he would like to be one.
  • Leverage gives a reasonably clear picture of what Sophie, Hardison, and Parker got up to prior to the team's formation, but the criminal details of "retrieval expert" Eliot's past are more ambiguous. It's confirmed he went from the US Armed Forces to Private Military Contractor to freelancer-for-hire, and the third season reveals that at one point he worked as an enforcer for the season's main antagonist. He occasionally hints at having done some very dark things he feels he can never be clean from, but the closest he comes to going into specifics (during the aforementioned season 3 reveal) is begging his teammates not to ask - because if they ask, he'll tell them.
  • Creed from The Office (US) takes this tropes Up to Eleven. A few examples of implied crimes...
    • Casually mentioning he has been involved in a number of cults, both as a leader and a follower.
    • Panicking when the cops show up to office looking for marijuana even though Michael was framing Toby.
    • Having an alarmingly encyclopedic knowledge of cannabis and murder.
    • In a Halloween Episode, showing up to work covered in blood and later mentioning to the camera crew what a lucky coincidence it was that it was Halloween.
    • Suggesting that he killed a man named Creed Bratton and assumed his identity.
    • In the Grand Finale, set a year after the penultimate episode, Dwight states that Creed faked his death the day after the documentary aired. He comes back during the episode, but the last we see of him is him being arrested.
  • Schitt's Creek: Back when she was a globe-trotting socialite with unlimited funds, Alexis would frequently get held hostage in faraway palaces or interrogated by foreign authorities at embassies. What she did to wind up in those situations is anyone's guess, including her parents', since they are often only learning of these occurrences in the present.
  • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Garak used to belong to a shifty organization called the Obsidian Ordernote  and did something to get him exiled from it, but it's never revealed what. He gives multiple conflicting stories, two of which involve double-crossing himself.
  • Lillian in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has said some seriously sketchy remarks about her past, such as having a cop's bullet lodged in her chest, that she has experience burying bodies, that she knows the gangs of New York by heart, and that she pickpockets all the time. She also accidentally murdered her own husband. Despite all this, she has also claimed to be a police informant. What is true or not is deliberately ambiguous because she's also old and has used her fair share of drugs.

    Video Games 
  • The Hunter playable class in Destiny is implied to have some kind of criminal background. The official class description reads, “You’re no outlaw, at least not anymore, but making your own luck has always meant bending the rules.” Given that the player character is revived by their Ghost at the beginning of the game after having been dead for a very long time, with no recollection of their past means we’ll likely never know what this line is referring to.
  • A tradition in the The Elder Scrolls games from Morrowind on. The Player Character starts as either a current or recently released prisoner, with the details left to the player's imagination. In every case, almost no-one acknowledges you to be a former convict after the fact (unless you commit new crimes to anger the locals), even if you're running around in prison rags and manacles.
    • In Morrowind, all we know about the player character is that they are "a prisoner born on a certain day to uncertain parents", whom the Emperor arranges to be transported to the isle of Vvardenfell to take part in The Prophecy.
    • In Oblivion, the player character is an inmate of the Imperial Prison who happens to be in the wrong cell at the right time, and escapes by tagging along with the Emperor and his bodyguards while they flee from assassins. Interestingly even the player character doesn't seem to know why they're in jail, and the Emperor simply gives this trope a Hand Wave if asked.
      Emperor Uriel Septim: Perhaps the gods have placed you here so that we may meet? As for what you have done, it does not matter. That is not what you will be remembered for.
    • In Skyrim it's left deliberately vague whether they're even a criminal at all; they were simply captured in the chaos of a battle between the Empire and local rebels, and the guards are confused as to why some random foreigner is among the prisoners to be executed.
  • Gaius in Fire Emblem Awakening isn't shy about admitting to be a thief, but won't say what got him branded. The only thing he's specifically said he's been arrested for was being paid to rob the royal treasury and frame Maribelle's father as the one who hired him. Even then, he sent an anonymous message exposing the whole scheme, and only went along with it in the first place because his real employer's plan B was abducting or killing Maribelle herself.
  • Nick from Left 4 Dead 2. Although he is characterized as a Con Man and drops several hints at his shady past, he never outright confirms any engagement in a specific criminal activity.
    Nick: Brains come out. Swamp water doesn't. Don't ask me how I know that.
  • Joey Falconetti in Ripper is explained by many to be the world's greatest hacker, known to have supposedly wiped the credit record of the entire East Coast, but few of the characters explain what he did to become the Retired Outlaw he is when the game takes place.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines: The Player Character knew how to pick locks before becoming a vampire, which Smiling Jack lampshades. Also, when they stumble across an acquaintance from their mortal life, she assumes that their disappearance was drug-related, not knowing about the Masquerade.
    Smiling Jack: Not exactly an angel in life, were ya?
  • In the first season of The Walking Dead, Lee is set to a prison involving a murder of his wife after catching her cheating with someone else. However it's never clear if he intentionally did it or if it was out of self defense. In fact it's one of the selling points of the dialogue system, to make him either seem like a decent being who was wrong accused or an utter bastard who deserved it.


    Web Animation 

    Western Animation 
  • In Gravity Falls, Grunkle Stan is known to be a cheapskate who frequently scams his customers, but hints are consistently dropped that his illegal activities are much more extensive. In "Stanchurian Candidate", he runs for mayor and wins in a landslide, but is disqualified after his criminal record is discovered. A Freeze-Frame Bonus lists various crimes he committed, including pug trafficking, impersonating a dentist, golf car theft, bingo fraud, and general indecency.
    Stan: (quickly turns of TV) Whoo, at least they didn't list any of the bad ones.
  • In Home Movies, Coach McGuirk casually refers to his time in prison without ever mentioning outright his sentence, how many times he's been in prison, or what for. When Brendon is sent to prison on a Scared Straight program, McGuirk gives him advice on how to survive, at a job interview the interviewer notes that his background check brought up a lot of drunk and disorderly offences, when he attends a court date with Brendon the Judge wonders if he's seen him before (to which McGuirk replies "several times" without going into detail) and he admits he can't abandon the field trip because he'd lose his job, do something stupid and wind up in jail "again".


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