‘You have the right to remain silent, and anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.’
How many times have you heard these lines thrown around colloquially or popping up in a legal drama? You see a witness on the stand in a high-profile trial, the prosecutor bombards the person with questions on the crux of the case, and eventually comes close to incriminating him. With the tension rising and audience staring, the witness finally answers: ‘I plead the Fifth’.
By now, you have gathered enough from the context clues (as the person refrains from saying anything else) that pleading the fifth means one can excuse himself or herself from answering questions in a trial, typically when it could incriminate themselves.
To understand this better, let’s see what The Fifth Amendment is all about and how it saves American citizens from incriminating themselves.
What Does ‘Plead The Fifth’ Mean?
To put it simply, pleading the Fifth means using the right to refuse to answer a question, especially in a criminal trial. This action is allowed on the grounds that a person might incriminate himself or herself unwittingly.
Here, The Fifth refers to the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which serves people in many ways – be it preventing an individual from being prosecuted twice for the same crime (double jeopardy protection), or forcing prosecutors to present relevant evidence to grand juries (writs of habeas corpus). The amendment is designed to prevent people from being tricked or forced to incriminate themselves. Under this, a person can never be compelled to testify or produce evidence that can be used against them in a criminal proceeding.
Although the right has been granted by the constitution – ‘No person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself’ – the amendment is subject to interpretation and often inspires debate in the legal circle.
How Did Pleading The Fifth Originate?
As the term has somewhat become a part of our national lexicon, most people know that they have the right to not answer questions when asked by police, both in court and in custody.
The roots of the right against self-incrimination can be traced back to 17th century England when Puritans used to be interrogated and tortured for their religious affiliations. If they remained silent, they would immediately be considered guilty. Later, the English government granted the right against self-incrimination to its citizens.
Having escaped the religious persecution, the Puritans introduced the idea to America, which eventually got codified in the Bill of Rights.
What Are The Misconceptions About The Fifth Amendment?
Many people assume that pleading the Fifth is proof that the person is guilty, which isn’t necessarily the case. There is a possibility that even if a person is innocent, inadvertent self-incrimination could happen under questioning.
What Are The Exceptions To The Fifth Amendment?
When it comes to the Fifth Amendment, it is better to keep a few things in mind.
1) The amendment does not usually cover civil cases. In a situation where a person wants to remain silent on the grounds that their testimony in a civil court could be used against them in a criminal case, the decision (to allow it or not) depends on the sole discretion of the judge.
2) The Fifth Amendment doesn’t apply to organizations. This means corporate entities cannot plead the Fifth to protect themselves from self-incrimination.
Legal proceedings can prove to be very tricky, especially when you are dealing with them for the first time. That’s why it is important to hire an experienced attorney for your case. At Brian Walker Law Firm PC, our knowledgeable experts will aid you in preparing for any challenges the court may bring. For any queries, call at 360-695-8886.