Follow TV Tropes


Bail Equals Freedom

Go To

The quickest and best way to get out of any sticky legal trouble is to post bail. Once bail is decided and paid, then you don't need to have any more worries about the police, the judge, the jury, or anything else. In extreme cases, you go right out and do the same thing again, only to get caught and post another bail, walking away.

This is when fiction treats bail as a fine, not as a guarantee of a later appearance before the police or the legal system. In real life, most courts take a very dim view of people abusing bail, or failing to appear later — usually it leads to them being detained until trial is concluded, and bail-jumping is itself a crime. That is, if the country even has bail (hint: most don't). Furthermore, those judged to be flight risks or dangers to the public will be denied bail. The decision to grant bail or not in general depends on a wide variety of factors that are weighed together; someone with a long history of serious offenses who is facing charges that could put them away for a long time, who has a mountain of evidence against them, has a proven history of threatening or harassing witnesses, and either has the money to post bail or has associates who do will almost certainly not be granted bail, as the risk that they will jump bail or go after witnesses is too great, and there is too much of a chance that they actually could come up with the money for an exorbitant bail amount. Most releases also have additional conditions; no-contact orders are common, primarily in domestic violence or assault and battery cases, and substance restrictions, curfews, and travel restrictions or location bans are also frequent.

This could be generously seen as an example of Conservation of Detail: somewhere between episodes, the character goes to court and gets a small fine or some other inconsequential outcome, but this isn't interesting enough to bother showing. But usually it's a bad case of Hollywood Law.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Pokémon: The Original Series: At the end of their first appearance, Butch and Cassidy are in jail for their crimes. At their next appearance, they're free and tell Jessie and James it's because their boss bailed them out.

    Comic Books 
  • Zigzagged in the Lucky Luke album Belle Starr. The titular character goes around posting bail for various criminals in exchange for working for her. Since she's bought off the local judge, his brother (who runs the only long-distance communication service), and the priest, she can continue unhindered.
  • Zig-zagged all over the place in Ultimate Spider-Man. Peter Parker assumes this trope is true when he hears Wilson Fisk (the Kingpin) has been released on bail and is furious because the evidence Spider-Man helped the police get is impossibly damning. But even though Fisk can return to his cushy penthouses and wealthy "legitimate" businesses, he still has to try and beat the charges leveled against him. Being a crime lord, he plans to get the charges dropped by bribing officials, but even that process takes months of work. In the meantime, he can't risk involving himself in any potential crimes with the spotlight already on him. So instead Kingpin feeds information on the criminal underworld to Spider-Man to help arrest up-and-coming crime lords (ensuring here's no threats to him when he's able to commit crimes freely again). When the charges are dropped, he proceeds to reign hell on the lives of Spider-Man, Daredevil Iron Fist, and Moon Knight... but is finally arrested again for attempted murder, this time while he's in the process of boarding a private plane out of the country and bail is not extended. Then in a later comic he somehow inexplicably posts bail again.... Only to be murdered by another super-villain.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Used a few times in the Midnight Run sequels, where Jack gets in trouble with local law enforcement and then posts bail. Egregious because the main character's job is to hunt down bail jumpers and bring them back to Los Angeles for prosecution, so they really should know better.
  • Averted in Shaft (2000), which is surprising considering how fast and loose they are with the law in the rest of the movie. When Walter Wade Jr. jumps (no pun intended) bail by flying to Switzerland, he is immediately arrested the moment he sets foot back on American soil. Of course, he ends up getting released on bail by the judge again (highly unlikely in Real Life, given that he's proven himself a flight risk), making the whole exercise pointless, except as an example of what an entitled Jerkass the character is. His lawyer argues that taking away his passport is enough to eliminate him as a flight risk. The judge agrees... cue Wade calling Shaft from Switzerland to make fun of him. It's made blatantly clear that Wade's father is a very influential man, and the judge is making all the wrong calls either because he's in the father's pocket or someone higher up is.
  • In Elf, Buddy gets arrested and put in jail for fighting a mall Santa ("He's not Santa! He's a fake!"). His dad bails him out not long after, and Buddy is pretty much free after that. Pretty much.
    Buddy: Things worked out great! They gave me a restraining order!
  • Brewster's Millions (1985): Subverted. Brewster and his best friend are arrested for a bar fight and are given a choice between posting bail and showing up later for a trial or pleading guilty and paying a fine. If not for the lawyers looking for Brewster to inform him about an Unexpected Inheritance, they would not be able to afford either option.
  • In Wild Rose (1932), Mr. Po bails out his son and his son's buddy after they are accused (incorrectly) of stealing a wallet. Nothing more is heard of their legal problem again.
  • Justified in Wyatt Earp (1994). Having fallen on hard times, a young Wyatt gets caught stealing a horse. His father posts bail, but tells Wyatt he's not showing up for the trial because the penalty for horse theft is death by hanging. Instead he's told to flee the state and never come back. The only reason Wyatt was even granted bail was that his father is a highly respected local judge who promised to make personally sure that Wyatt shows up for trial.

  • Averted in A Civil Campaign. On Escobar, a bond is a guarantee of court appearance, but on Jackson's Whole bail means being handed off into the clutches of the one who pays the bail.
    "Whatever. The Escobaran Cortes does not, as you seem to think, engage itself in the slave trade. However, it's done on this benighted planet, on Escobar a bond is a guarantee of court appearance, not some kind of human meat market transaction."
    "It is where I come from," Mark muttered.
  • Invoked in The Art of Arrow Cutting by Stephen Dedman. Mage is up against murder charges, but Charles uses the power of the talisman to win enough money in Vegas to post bail. The evidence against Mage was fairly circumstantial to start with, and he manages to fake his own death before his trial comes up.
  • In Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg and Passepartout are sentenced to imprisonment in India for desecrating an Indian temple. Phileas Fogg pays a bail for both Passepartout and himself, then immediately proceeds to board a steamer leaving for Singapore.
  • Defied in I Heard That Song Before. When Peter is eventually charged with Susan's murder, he's released on bail with strict conditions, including having to wear an ankle monitor and not being allowed to leave the property save for court dates and medical emergencies. When he inadvertently breaks the bail conditions while sleepwalking, he's swiftly jailed again.
  • Parodied in The Truth: When Mr Slant the vampire lawyer keeps knocking back Commander Vimes's attempts to set a large bail for William de Worde, Vimes sarcastically gives William a dollar, and tells him that if he skips town he'll have to return it.
  • Subverted in On Wings of Eagles by Ken Follett as the bail for the two EDS businessmen arrested on trumped-up charges is twelve million dollars and is regarded by EDS as basically a ransom demand. Even if EDS can raise the money, and then find a means of paying it when the Iranian government is on the verge of collapse, there's the problem of getting the two men out of the country.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Used frequently in the original Knight Rider series: whenever Michael gets in trouble with the law, the Foundation will bail him out. At one point, a law enforcement officer who's trying to make trouble for Michael even explicitly invokes the idea that one day he'll get something to stick on him and no one will be able to bail him out (after already arresting him, Michael is currently out on bail for that charge).
  • Justified in the Miniseries Bonanno: A Godfather's Story. A young Joe Bonanno is arrested in Florida for entering the country illegally. A New York mobster comes down to bail him out and afterwards remarks that Bonanno will have to return for trial in a few weeks. He then breaks out into laughter because he was joking and Bonanno actually believed him for a moment. It's the 1920s and as long as Bonanno stays out of Florida, no one will come looking for him when he fails to appear for trial. The judge should have never granted bail to an illegal immigrant, but the mobster bribed him ahead of time.
  • My Name Is Earl:
    • Earl feels compelled to help his ex-wife Joy make bail when she's charged with kidnapping and grand theft auto. The judge sets her bail at $1,000,000, which is more money than Earl has even with his lottery winnings because this is her third strike. To get the money, Earl asks the richest (and craziest) man in Camden, Richard Chubby (Burt Reynolds), the owner of the local strip club, and almost every other business in Camden. He agrees to give Earl the money, in exchange for bringing back his number one dancer, Catalina. Catalina agrees until she finds out it's to help her worst enemy, so Joy steps up to dance...but disaster ensues after drinking to ease her stage fright, so Catalina gets on stage in order to help Earl out of the stress. However, the trope is subverted: Joy is expected to appear in court several episodes later and spends the interim preparing for her trial.
    • This trope is downright abused in the episode where he helps his dad run for mayor. There is an entire montage of instances where Earl is bailed out of the local jail, with no lasting consequences. Forget Joy's three strikes; Earl should have had at least ten strikes by now.
  • Frasier. Discussed when Maris is refused bail because the government thinks she's a flight risk when she's arrested for murdering her lover.
    Niles: Can you imagine?
    Martin: Well, it didn't help that when they found her, she had a passport, a wig, and $10,000 in her purse.
    Niles: Maris always has those things in her purse.
  • Averted in House. A Season 5 episode reveals that House and Wilson met at a medical conference in New Orleans, where Wilson (very depressed and drunk from finding out his then-wife had filed for divorce) started a fight at a bar and caused property damage, and House bailed him out. It wasn't until years later when House got Wilson arrested for speeding (long story), that Wilson learned that the state of Louisiana still had an outstanding warrant for his arrest. House points out that all he did was pay Wilson's bail; he still needed to show up at the arraignment and sort things out. However, given that the charges were minor and Wilson had paid back the cost of the damage, they ultimately decide it's not worth it to pursue the case and the warrant is effectively vacated anyway.
  • The Defenders (2017):
    • Daredevil (2015): Averted with Karen Page. Wilson Fisk attempts to have her killed in jail by a corrupt guard, but Karen fights off the guard. Matt and Foggy manage to secure her release from jail. While at Nelson & Murdock, Karen thanks them for getting her out of jail, only for Foggy to tell her that just because she's been released from jail doesn't mean the authorities won't press charges at a later date.
    • Luke Cage (2016): Hernan "Shades" Alvarez plays it straight when he's bailed out by Diamondback after being arrested at the end of Diamondback's hostage situation. Not even Misty Knight seems to realize that seeing Shades with Mariah Dillard (a known associate) after he's bailed out constitutes a bail-jumping charge. Season 2 establishes that the Stokes gang has several judges in their pocket, which is why they're able to get Arturo Rey bailed out after he's caught trying to kill Luke with a Judas bullet.
  • Inverted in season 6 of The Good Wife when Cary is falsely accused of aiding and abetting Lemond Bishop's drug ring. It takes several episodes for the firm to come up with the money to bail him out, and his movements are restricted: he's nearly sent back to jail, and is fitted with a GPS tracker, after traveling less than a mile outside Cook County to go to a friend's birthday party.
  • Done realistically in the fourth season of Better Call Saul: Paying bail lets Lalo escape arrest for literal murder because he's a foreigner on trial under the assumed name "Jorge de Guzman". He can jump bail and move back to Mexico with zero fear of consequences. He only made bail because the sole witness was tampered with, Saul makes it look like Lalo/Jorge had family in Albuquerque, and the judge wasn't expecting Lalo to have seven million dollars to throw away.

    Video Games 
  • Getting arrested in the handheld version The Urbz results in either a small fee of 500 credits or barely a few hours of jailtime, though it's justified in that the things you can be jailed for are very petty misdemeanors that no real prison would waste the time and paperwork over (like pissing yourself or falling asleep in public or- during Chapter 4, running too fast).

    Visual Novels 
  • Averted in Daughter for Dessert. Saul bails the protagonist out of jail, but he still has to stand trial for breaking and entering.

    Web Videos 
  • Cobra Kai: In the pilot, Johnny Lawrence is arrested and bailed out by his stepfather in the process of saving Miguel from a gang of bullies. The arrest is never brought up again (though Johnny would have a reasonable case for dismissal given the circumstances, especially with Miguel as a witness to what happened), though the fight is.

    Western Animation 
  • DuckTales (1987): In "Bubbeo and Juliet", Scrooge is jailed a few times for disturbing the police in his escalating feud with the Blurffs. Scrooge complains about the increasing cost of being bailed out of jail. In effect Scrooge is simply being fined; once Scrooge pays the charges, they appear to be dropped.
  • On Futurama, Bender's arrest for mass shoplifting in "A Fishful of Dollars" is forgotten about after he's bailed out. In fact, it's actually referred to as a fine, not bail, which raises many other questions about 31st-century laws.
  • In the South Park episode "The Losing Edge," Randy is constantly getting in fights at his son's little league games. After he's been released, Gerald asks him how much bail was and Randy casually replies, "Like two hundred dollars, no big whoop." This is played for comedy as he keeps on assaulting people over and over and presumably keeps getting let back out for chump change. The inevitable trial for twelve counts of assault is never seen and Randy should have gotten six months for his repeated unprovoked offences.
  • In one episode of Around the World with Willy Fog, Rigadon gets an actual prison sentence, and Fog gets him completely freed by paying the bail. As in, Fog explicitly states they're going to leave the country and he can't spare his manservant to do time. The judge declares the bail forfeit on the spot and awards it to the injured party.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Sex, Pies, and Idiot Scrapes", Homer was released on bail after being arrested for his role in a riot. Subverted because he's told a Bounty Hunter will be sent after him if he jumps bail. Later on, the bail bondsman does send a bounty hunter after Homer because he was so busy bounty hunting that he didn't turn up for court.

    Real Life 
  • Traffic tickets are generally considered a form of bail in most of the US. If you are issued a traffic citation for almost anything short of DUI, you are expected to either show up to court (and doing so is often a good idea, because in many cases the police officer won't show up and that often means you've won the case by forfeit, and even if they do they are some of the easiest cases to win, especially in regard to "fix-it tickets" where you can simply present proof that you fixed the taillight/had the smog inspection/etc.) or simply pay the fine (which is admitting guilt and ending the case).
  • The practice of misdemeanor citation/"notice to appear" exists in some areas of the US (specifically where there is not enough room in jail for petty shoplifters or ticket scalpers or people with small amounts of drugs or disturbing the peace, for example, or where people who have committed such crimes are obviously not frequent offenders/not a danger to others/stable enough not to flee). In practice, this is similar to a traffic citation, except that you must appear in court, and that you may be later sentenced to jail, but only if found guilty and a fine or diversion to treatment or the like isn't an option. In fact, if you are arrested for a petty crime, it is a very good idea to be polite and ask the officer if you can have a notice to appear rather than be taken to jail — some officers will do this, especially if you are polite and nonthreatening.
  • Similarly, "short arrest" is common for those who are of some financial means and stability and who have generally committed misdemeanors (e.g. first-time DUI, simple assault, small amount drug possession). You will be arrested and booked, but you likely will not be actually placed in "general population"/a jail cell if your lawyer is present and pays the full bail amount. Of course, you will have to show up to court and, again, you may end up in jail if found guilty and fine or diversion is not an option, but it will keep you free in the meantime (and, if you can show proof of innocence or of getting help if you do choose to plead guilty, time to build your defense/argue for a plea deal or lesser punishment).
  • Some jurisdictions in the United States are starting to abolish bail altogether because it favors wealthier defendants and, contrary to common wisdom, pilot programs have shown it has very little effect on court-skipping rates.
  • Bail in some states is also known to be set extremely, unrealistically high for people that they have to make overtures of giving a fair choice to due to local laws, like mass-shooters, rapists, and serial killers who if they actually made bond, would likely skip town or commit more crimes because they're going to jail anyway when their crimes are linked. It's not uncommon to hear "in jail on (a 6 or 7 digit) bond" for these types. As shown in the case of Robert Durst, even this doesn't always work.