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Ambiguous Criminal History

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Phoebe: I gotta ask you though, how'd you know where to find me?
Gary: Well, your fingerprints were all over my badge, so I just ran it through the computer, and this was listed as your last known address, so I checked it out.
Phoebe: Ah. Impressive.
Gary: Not as impressive as you. I gotta tell you, I looked at your record and you've done some pretty weird stuff.
Phoebe: ...Yeah, we'll talk at dinner.

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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  • itemLabel's Peepy is described to have a criminal background but doesn't go into specifics about its crime(s). However, the corresponding lore videos also shows it deliberately trying to avoid its parole officer, influencing someone to shoplift, and taking advantage of someone to steal their cryptocurrency and tax returns.
    Listing: After committing a dangerous and disrespectful crime, Peepy is out on bail and ready to come to your house.

    Anime and Manga 
  • In The Seven Deadly Sins, Elizabeth's first incarnation is called "Bloodstained Ellie" by some, and two of the Commandments (the Demon King's elite strike force) want to get revenge on her specifically. The latter is explained in a way that gels with her current personality (Derriere's sister was killed in a hostage negotiation that went wrong, Zeldris is upset that his brother was seduced out of the Demon Clan), the former isn't.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman '66: "The Butler Did It!" begins with Alfred's cousin Egbert being released from the Wayne Foundation Halfway House for the Halfway Corrupt. It isn't explained what illicit activity Egbert committed that landed him there, but Alfred tells his cousin that he deserved to serve time for it.
  • Spider-Man 2099: Miguel's mother Conchata is in a mental institution by the time she first appears. Based on what few hints she gives about her past, she was a denizen in the worst part of New York before doing some extremely questionable things to climb up the social ranks. The fact that she knows how to commit a murder without leaving any evidence - and that she has a gun in an era where they're illegal - and that she knows how to use it supports this.
  • The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye: Some of the prominent incidents in Whirl's past are a matter of public, occasionally even historical, record - he was the Dirty Cop who beat Megatron in his cell, ultimately inspiring the Decepticons to become more militant and ultimately kick off a four-million-year war. Some of them can be inferred from, for example, his career as a Wrecker, a unit with a certain laissez-faire attitude towards war crimes. And then there are the hints of past mayhem that other characters bring up out of context and don't explain.
    Brainstorm: If he needs help disposing of a body, tell him I'm not bailing him out. Not again.
    Magnus: Forgive me, but the last time we talked on the phone, I was asking you to let the hostages go.

    Fan Works 
  • Not the intended use (Zantetsuken Reverse): Soma's parents have trouble with the Mafia from several countries (at least Icelandic and Portuguese), and they owe them a lot of money, to the point they had to sell their kidneys in the past. Soma for his part is generally uninvolved in all this, but he's aware of their history and is able to tell apart which country each group comes from.

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Back to God's Country: "Sealskin" Blake, head of a trading post in the Canadian far north, is an obvious bad guy who is introduced when he's abusing a dog. The title card says that he deals in sealskin and furs, "—and other things." Later he appears to be a pimp, as shown when he forces some Inuit women to go onto Rydal's boat.
  • In Casablanca:
    Renault: I've often speculated on why you don't return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a Senator's wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It's the romantic in me.
    Rick: It's a combination of all three.
    • The writers tried to come up with something more concrete (and cool) for Rick, but at the point where someone suggested that the reason was "unpaid parking tickets", they decided it was better left vague.
  • Aja from Jem and the Holograms (2015) 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. (In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffing, 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).
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: When Jack's list of crimes is being read out, one of the entries is "impersonating a cleric of the Church of England". The context of this is never explained, and nor is Jack's little smirk when he hears it.
  • It's insinuated in Solo that Qi'ra has done many illegal and unsavory things during her work with the Crimson Dawn syndicate, to the point she thinks her childhood sweetheart Han (who isn't exactly a model citizen himself) would instantly reject her if he knew about her record. She never goes into specifics, but it's definitely worse than picking pockets and stealing coaxium, given the Crimson Dawn are known for doing things like cutting out the tongues of those who oppose them, her boss likes stabbing people who displease him, and his boss is ex-Sith Lord Darth Maul.

  • 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 
  • Abbott Elementary: Second-grade teacher Melissa Schemmenti has got a Friend in the Black Market for everything, and she most often uses her resources to get school supplies that the school system isn't providing the titular school with. Additionally, her first confessional includes this line:
    Melissa: [talking to the documentary crew filming her] You Sicilian? Italian? You from South [Philadelphia]? [Beat] Okay, you guys workin' with the cops? 'Cause you gotta tell me.
  • 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.
  • Derry Girls: In season 3 episode "Strangers on a Train", the parents come across old childhood neighbor Aideen who has been in prison for... something. In the finale set around the Good Friday Agreement referendum, the usually lackadaisical Michelle is upset that the treaty would lead to the release of all paramilitary prisoners, including her previously unmentioned brother. There are also oblique references to grandfather Joe McCool being involved with the IRA in some capacity.
  • Firefly: Shepherd Book is an unassuming preacher who frequently displays either far more competence with firearms or hand-to-hand combat that one would ever suspect, or deep familiarity with the criminal underworld. Multiple characters note this, but Book refuses to ever elaborate. Side materials eventually reveal that Book used to be an Operative, a black ops agent for the government.
    Mal: It's of interest to me how much you seem to know about that world.
    Book: I wasn't born a Shepherd, Mal.
    Mal: You have to tell me about that some time.
    Book: No, I don't.
  • Freaks and Geeks: When Vice President George Bush visits the school, guidance counselor Jeff is pulled aside, and told he has to be under watch as a security risk. He tells Lindsey this is related to his past in the Anti War movement and the 1968 Democratic National Convention protest.
  • Friends: Phoebe's Mysterious Past as a homeless teenager is a frequent source of comedy on the show. 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 was 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.
  • How I Met Your Mother:
    • Barney's job is poorly defined and highly ambiguous, though it's known that he works for Evil, Inc. and his company does a lot of illegal activity, gets sued frequently, and once contaminated Lisbon's water supply. 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 talked to the North Koreans, and if his kidnappers are North Korean that he never talked to the South Koreans.
      • In the ninth and final season, it's revealed that Barney's job description is "Provide Legal Exculpation And Sign Everything" (P.L.E.A.S.E.), meaning that every day he just has to sign a bunch of legal paperwork designating him as the company's Fall Guy for all their criminal activities, though he's secretly an FBI informant reporting on the company's crimes.
    • "Twelve Horny Women" has a subplot about the gang bragging about their supposed run-ins with the law as teenagers, with Barney getting arrested numerous times and being friendly with the bailiff; Ted getting mug shots and getting locked up constantly; Robin throwing a TV out a closed hotel window and getting caught drunk driving a Zamboni while naked; and Lily terrifying the kids in her neighborhood, using a fake ID, drinking underage, and antagonizing police officers. In the end, Robin, Ted, and Barney admit they made most of it up, but The Stinger implies that Lily's exploits really happened.
  • 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.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power: Halbrand, a mysterious roguish man Galadriel meets in the Sundering Seas, alludes several times at some unforgiving things he had to do to survive when his home was taken by Orcs. He never specifies what happened, and Galadriel doesn't pushes the matter, believing Halbrand can redeem himself because whatever he did, it was not done from a place of malice. Subverted after it's revealed that Halbrand is Sauron is disguise. His bad deeds are quite clear at this point.
  • Creed from the American version of The Office exaggerates this trope. A few examples of implied crimes...
    • Casually mentioning he has been involved in a number of cults, both as a leader and a follower. ("You make more money as a leader, but you have more fun as a follower.")
    • Panicking when the cops show up to the 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.
    • When told there has been a murder in the office (as part of a murder mystery game), he politely excuses himself and drives away in panic.
    • Claiming that the last person who stole from him "disappeared". That person's name? Creed Bratton.
    • When he's getting his photo taken for an ID, he instinctively turns to the side immediately afterwards, as if getting a mugshot.
    • He admits having an alternate identity named "William Charles Schneider" complete with passport note  that he uses to unload debt on.
    • 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.
  • Reservation Dogs: When Officer Big pulls Uncle Brownie over for stealing a lawnmower, he says Brownie has additional warrants. What the warrants are for is not elaborated upon.
  • 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 during his time in the Order to get him exiled from Cardassia, but it's never revealed what. The one time he supposedly opens up about it, he actually gives multiple conflicting stories, all of which are ultimately proven to be at least partially false.
  • 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.
  • Cedric Daniels in The Wire is on the FBI's radar for something in his past.

  • The titular character of the Sloppy Seconds song "Ice Cream Man" mentions that he "just got parole", which implies that he had recently been released from prison (without explaining why he was incarcerated in the first place) and is just one of the song's hints that this ice cream man isn't a good person.

    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 beginning of the first season of The Walking Dead (Telltale), Lee is on his way to a prison after killing the man he caught having sex with his wife. 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; you can make him either a decent being who was wrongly accused or an utter bastard who deserved it.

    Web Animation 
  • Gelatin from Battle for Dream Island apparently got arrested for impersonating Loser once. This was never explained and was likely just a gag to up the humor factor of that season.
  • Don't Walk Home Alone After Dark: Played for Horror in The Worm. It's never fully detailed what Sparrow did to get her landed in a mental hospital, but it's implied to have been pretty serious, with the narrator (Sparrow's therapist) stating that when he met Sparrow he'd been half expecting an “uncontrollable monster” and that it was hard to reconcile the small, quiet teenager in front of him with what she had done. A newspaper in one shot states she was taken into custody over her suspected involvement in the murder-suicide of her friends and an older man, but it's unclear what exactly went down. In the comment section on the video, creator Andy Coyle simply said that Sparrow did "What she had to…"
  • From Homestar Runner, Bub's concession stand is barely legal to begin with, but various cartoons have suggested a more extensive criminal past. The Strong Bad Email "lackey" reveals he's on the run from one or more debt collection agencies. In "Bug in Mouth Disease", he's seen trying to dispose of files labeled "Exhibit A" and a cooler containing a human pancreas labeled "Exhibit B". In "buried", he implies that he buried someone named Rich under Strongbadia. And in "I Killed Pom Pom", he thinks it's perfectly reasonable for someone to buy 50 gallons of bleach, saw blades, and body bags in a single shopping trip—and when Homestar "confesses" to the murder he thinks he committed, Bubs offers advice on how to avoid arrest.
    • Coach Z, adding to his general sketchy air, has been stated to be wanted in multiple states, has been in juvenile prison despite being one of the older cast members and spent a lot of the show's hiatus in prison awaiting trial for something that's never confirmed but Bubs is certain that he's guilty.

    Web Media 
  • Frank from The Cry of Mann, stated that he's been to jail and isn't going back...but never explains what he was in jail for, and instead just changes the subject onto Courtney's "going soft".
  • Riley from Less is Morgue seems to be banned from pretty much everywhere in Florida. Why? Probably best we don't ask.
  • Pirates SMP: As of the start of the SMP, Kuervo has been on the run from the Armada of Naya for three years for unspecified reasons. It takes until the finale for this to become resolvedhe committed mass tyrannicide against eight of the ten Armada commanders after finding out they sent his older brother to his death, and is regarded as a Dangerous Deserter at home for it.
  • Uncle Al: In "Donkey Kong Country Abridged", Cranky is a Dirty Old Man who uses the Crystal Titty to look at Donkey Kong in perverse ways and mentions he'd be arrested for doing so in-person, is afraid of having his Internet history exposed, and mentions that he was born with a criminal record a mile long.


    Western Animation 
  • Family Guy: Oh Glenn Quagmire. What sexual crimes hasn’t he committed? In addition to the hundreds of crimes that he’s committed on screen, there are several implications that he’s committed much more than that. A good example of this would be in the episode “Perfect Castaway.” In it, Peter and friends play a game of I Never, and they start listing every single sexual act they can think of. Of course, Quagmire gets progressively more and more drunk, as he has apparently committed most of, if not everything that they have listed.
    Peter: God, let's see... What else is there, Um... I never gave a reach-around to a spider monkey while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
    Quagmire: Oh, God. (takes a drink.)
    Joe: I, uh... I never picked up an illegal alien at Home Depot to take home and choke me while I touch myself.
    Quagmire: Oh, come on! (takes another drink)
    Peter: Um... I never did the same thing, but with someone from JoAnn Fabrics.
    Quagmire: Oh, God! This is ridiculous! (takes a drink and passes out)
    Peter: Oh, wow, he's out cold. Hey, let's write on him! (Peter, Joe, and Cleveland giggle.)
  • Generator Rex: Combined with Persona Non Grata in "Moonlighting" where Lansky has a Running Gag of "I can't go to (X). Long story." What he did to get him banned from so many places is not elaborated on. Neither is what his punishment would be should he return.
  • In Gravity Falls, Grunkle Stan is a cheapskate who frequently scams his customers, but hints are consistently dropped that his illegal activities are much more extensive. In "The 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 (Which he does on-screen in the next episode), impersonating a dentist, golf car theft, bingo fraud, first-degree llamacide ("That llama knew too much!") and general indecency.
    Stan: [quickly turns off 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".
  • We Bare Bears: In "Mom App", the "Posh Mom" the bears hire through the eponymous app decides to send Ice Bear to Singapore to study her family business, and Ice Bear objects that he's wanted in Singapore.