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In various locations I've "infiltrated" I've noticed that there are locked chests. Usually there's a little bit of "red text" saying I can pick the lock - which typically indicates that this is a criminal act.

However, I don't know if I'd actually get busted for doing this in front of someone, and there's also not a "percentage chance of failure" like for stealing. I can't tell if I'm going to get into trouble or not before I start, which is important since I don't particularly like jail.

If I pick a NPC owned, locked item in front of witnesses, but don't steal any of the items, will I get into trouble with the law? What circumstances will cause me to get busted?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

You can pick the lock without any adverse affects no matter who is around. However, if you decide to take any of the items inside, then there will be trouble. The red text is acting like warning, letting you know the container is owned. Once you pick the lock and the items are displayed, then you will see the red percentages next to each item.

As far as I can tell, lockpicking isn't considered a crime but stealing is.

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I confirmed this last night - in full view of a room full of guards, I picked the lock on a chest but did not steal anything out of it. I got the XP bonus for picking the lock, but no one became hostile or remarked that I was engaging in a hostile act. I did not have to be in "sneak" mode for this to work. –  agent86 Feb 10 '12 at 15:57
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You can also check the "Social" section of "Stats" (scroll to very bottom) under "Status" from the main pause menu. This will tell you if you've got a bounty and its value. Also in this section is the total value of all stolen items. If you check it prior to taking an action of questionable legality and check it again thereafter, any change > 0 and you've committed a crime.

Note: Try saving just prior to doing the potentially illegal action to avoid consequences (if you're not a player who feels like this is against your gaming "cheat moral code.")

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