Understanding the Fifth Amendment
We have all heard the expression, “I plead the Fifth”, but what does that really mean? Let’s break it down. The first step in understanding what that means is knowing that it is referring to the fifth amendment to the Constitution of the United States and part of the Bill of Rights. You may be surprised to know that “pleading the fifth” also only refers to only one portion of this amendment. The fifth amendment has a place in both civil and criminal trials. Let’s take it apart and find out what it’s saying.
The first line states, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger.” This lengthy statement means you can be indicted, or accused of a crime, by the grand jury before any criminal charges have actually been made. This usually occurs when the grand jury determines that there is probable cause that the crime in question has been committed and by the suspect in question.
Next the fifth amendment says, “nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” To make this explanation shorter, you are protected against a Double Jeopardy, or having multiple trials for the same crime. A second trial would not be permitted for the same criminal offense whether it be after an acquittal or a conviction.
Then it goes on to say, “nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, not be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. Here is the infamous statement that leads to “pleading the fifth”. This portion of the fifth amendment protects against self-incrimination. When being asked questions as a witness in court, a person can use this right if they know that the answer they are thinking about giving may cause them to appear guilty of the crime in question. This statement is also reiterated in the Miranda rights usually read to a criminal when being arrested, although in some places the times to read someone their Miranda rights has changed.
And lastly the fifth amendment states, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without compensation”. This part of the fifth amendment I can explain best by referring to eminent domain. Eminent domain is used when the government takes property for public use but in return the property owner is compensated fairly. Just like eminent domain, the federal government can take private property as long as they compensate the property owner justly.
There you have a quick run-down of the fifth amendment of the Constitution of the United States. There is obviously more in depth information but at least now you’ll know what your friend means when they tell you they “plead the fifth.
– Allison McKenzie
Mr. Ryan Strasser, Fifth Amendment LII / Legal Information Institute (2017),
https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/fifth_amendment (last vistited Sep 7, 2018).