Pleading the Fifth: What Does It Mean?

Pleading the Fifth: What Does It Mean?You probably have watched at least one law or police drama that included a scene where a law enforcement officer explained to a suspect that “You have the right to remain silent.” The “right to remain silent” comes from the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Considered a cornerstone of our Bill of Rights, the Fifth Amendment states a suspect has the right to refuse to answer any question or provide any information that might incriminate the suspect.

Another way of phrasing the “right to remain silent” is to “plead the Fifth.”

The United States Constitution clearly grants the right to remain silent by stating “No person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Nonetheless, the Fifth Amendment is frequently the source of judicial interpretation that leads to heated debates inside a courtroom, as well as inside a police department interrogation room.

How Does the Fifth Amendment influence Testimony at a Criminal Trial?

During a criminal trial, the Fifth Amendment provides defendants with the right not to testify under any legal circumstance. This means the defendant’s lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge cannot force the defendant to present incriminating information. Defendants that decide to testify cannot pick and choose which questions to answer under oath. Once a defendant waives the right to remain silent, the defendant is required by law to answer every question posed by the judge, prosecutor, and the defendant’s lawyer.

A landmark Supreme Court case in 2001 called Ohio v. Reiner set the groundwork for establishing protocols for defendants that plead the Fifth. According to the 2001 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that “a witness may have a reasonable fear of prosecution and yet be innocent of any wrongdoing. The [Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination] serves to protect the innocent who otherwise might be ensnared by ambiguous circumstances.” Prosecutors cannot request a jury to conclude a defendant is guilty just because the defendant refused to take the stand and testify during a trial.

Which Witnesses Can Plead the Fifth?

Defendants are not the only participants in a criminal trial that have the right to invoke the Fifth Amendment. Witnesses called to the stand by both the prosecutor and defense attorney can refuse to answer certain questions, if any of the questions would hold them accountable for committing a crime. Witnesses have a different type of Fifth Amendment right than what defendants have. Defendants cannot be selective when answering questions while under oath.

What About Fingerprints and Blood Tests?

The Fifth Amendment’s right not to incriminate yourself applies only to testimony while a defendant and witnesses are under oath. A defendant cannot refuse to get processed for fingerprints or undergo a blood test for DNA results. The Supreme Court has ruled the right not to self-incriminate applies only to evidence provided through testimony. Both fingerprints and DNA collected from blood samples are considered non-testimonial.

Learn More About Your Fifth Amendment Rights

One of many benefits of hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney is to receive advice on when to plead the Fifth. Your lawyer conducts a thorough review of your case to anticipate the types of questions that might incriminate you while you are under oath. If you face one or more criminal charges, you must know when the time is right to remain silent.

Schedule a free case evaluation with Dan E. Chambers by calling the Chambers Law Firm at 714-760-4088.

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