Know Your Rights: What Does it Really Mean to ‘Plead the Fifth’?

“Pleading the Fifth.” For sure, you’ve heard this phrase time and time again in television shows, especially crime documentaries and courtroom drama. This is invoking the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which grants the right not to testify against oneself. This means that in police interviews or in court proceedings, the person accused of a crime can refuse to answer anything if it will provide evidence in prosecuting them. It’s one of the legal protections one has against being treated unfairly. If you’re accused of a crime, it’s worth taking a closer look at your rights.

How the Legal Principle Started

Believe it or not, the right against self-incrimination traces its roots back to England. In the 17th century, a defining time of drastic politico-religious movement, interrogators would often force or torture Puritans into admitting their sectarian affiliations. When people would stay silent, authorities consider them guilty. The tables turned when a revolution succeeded in securing greater parliamentary influence. The state provided their citizens with a right against being a witness against oneself. As some of the Puritans migrated to America, they took this principle with them and influenced the greater society. Today, this right is enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

When This Privilege Applies

Individuals can plead the Fifth in state or federal court. As Kent criminal defense lawyers noted, you can use it in different kinds of proceedings, including trials, grand jury hearings, or depositions. When you do this, the parties involved, from the prosecutors and the judge down to your own lawyer, cannot coerce you to testify if you don’t want to. If you do decide to take the witness stand, you can’t be selective with the questions, picking only the ones you prefer. Once you waive your right, it’s waived throughout the court proceeding.

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It’s also worth taking note that it’s not just you who can plead the Fifth, but also the other witnesses. They can decide not to answer queries that would incriminate them to the case being tried and to other types of criminal activities. What’s different here, though, is that people exercise this right selectively and that they’re often compelled by law through a subpoena.

What Pleading the Fifth Isn’t

If you watch a lot of courtroom drama, you would notice that most lawyers often advise culpable clients to not take the stand. To avoid unguarded, unfavorable statements. As a result, a majority of people perceive that the accused who’s claiming the Fifth is guilty. Yes, it looks suspicious at a glance, but invoking this right isn’t in any way an admission of guilt. In fact, the jury is not supposed to consider the defendant’s refusal to be a witness when making a verdict. As there are cases when the accused is indeed innocent, but they’re just reasonably anxious about being exposed to the prosecution.

The accused has equal protection under the law like the victims. If you’re accused of a crime, it pays to know your rights and privileges. Get in touch with an experienced criminal lawyer to know more about the legal remedies available to you.