An outlaw is an individual who lives outside the law. Typically, he or she is wanted for outstanding crimes, and the decision to live as an outlaw rather than submitting to judgment and sentencing may mean that the outlaw can be denied certain legal rights. In many cultures, a mythical tradition surrounds outlaws, and in some cases these criminals may even become populist heroes who are celebrated in legend and stories.
The origins of the word “outlaw” lie in an Old Norse word which means “banished.” Historically, someone could be condemned with a “Writ of Outlawry” in English common law, which meant that the outlaw forfeited his or her property to the Crown as a result of criminal activity. Furthermore, the Writ allowed people to pursue and kill the outlaw without the potential for legal repercussions, acting as a form of death sentence.
Populist figures like Robin Hood arose in the medieval period because many people were opposed to the sometimes brutal nature of common law. These folk heroes who stole from the wealthy and landed members of society were celebrated even if they didn't redistribute to the poor, and the Crown tended to treat them very harshly if they were caught, to set an example to would-be followers. The Writ of Outlaw no longer exists today, but it has clearly left a legacy behind, as evidenced by the esteemed status of many real and fictional outlaws.
Today, the term “outlaw” is used in several different ways. In the first case, it may refer to someone who is a fugitive from justice for a single crime, such as a bank robbery or murder. In other instances, it refers to habitual offenders who have managed to evade justice despite committing a string of crimes. The term is also used to discuss individuals who have violated the law in a way which supporters deem just and appropriate, such as someone who engages in civil disobedience.
Legal protections for outlaws may be limited, depending on which legal system the outlaw has violated. In many nations, outlaws can be pursued by bounty hunters who capture criminals in an exchange for financial compensation, and while the bounty hunters are obliged to stay within the law, they may go to great lengths to acquire their targets. Once apprehended, an outlaw may be denied bail and other privileges, under the argument that the individual poses a flight risk.