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The following actions are considered crimes and are reported if you are detected:
- Stealing items or horses
- Pickpocketing items
- Tresspassing (not leaving an area when you have been told you should not be there)
- Picking a lock
- Starting a fight (defending yourself is not a crime)
- Killing a non-aggressive character
When a crime is reported, a Bounty is placed on your head for the Hold you are in. The amount of that Bounty depends on the seriousness of the crime. Anyone that sees you commit a crime will become a witness. If you manage to eliminate all of the witnesses to a crime shortly after it has been committed, the Bounty will not take effect.
When you have a bounty, guards will approach and arrest you. If you run, they'll come after you. If you escape to a different Hold where you do not have a Bounty, the guards there will ignore you.
If caught by the guards, you typically have the following options"
- Pay your Bounty. Any stolen items in your inventory will be confiscated, including items you stole while undetected, but you are otherwise free to go.
- Go to Jail. After being sent to jail, you can attempt to pick the lock of your jail cell and escape. To serve your time, activate the bed in your cell and will appear outside when your time is served. You will lose progress towards skill increases depending on how long your sentence is.
- Resist arrest. Guards will attack you if you resist. If you escape, the Bounty will remain on your head, and guards will try to arrest you if you return. If you yield by sheathing your weapon, the guards may stop attacking, but will still attempt to arrest you.
Each major city in Skyrim has its own jail.