Pleading “The Fifth”: What It Means and How to Do It
It’s really amazing just how much a person can pick up from watching courtroom dramas. There’s no doubt that it’s only a small percentage of what really happens in court that is portrayed on these shows, but it’s often enough to at least give a person a basic understanding of the law. One of the most commonly portrayed legal maneuvers is “pleading the Fifth,” and while it may seem dramatizing, it’s actually a very important legal tactic.
What is Pleading the Fifth?
Pleading the Fifth is something that a witness can do when under oath to avoid releasing certain information. If the answers that a person provides could be used against him as evidence, he can plead the Fifth and refuse to testify about certain information.
This specific right comes from the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and much like the right to remain silent, which a person has when interrogated by police, an individual is under no obligation to testify against themselves.
The Basics of Pleading the Fifth
Pleading the Fifth isn’t a way to avoid testifying and releasing information that’s relevant to a trial. If that information incriminates the witness, however, they can stay mute on the subject. In some cases, a person can also invoke spousal privilege in order to refuse to testify to facts that could incriminate their husband or wife.
It’s important for every defendant to know that they cannot plead the Fifth, as only witnesses can invoke this right. If a defendant chooses to testify during their own criminal trial, they leave the door open for the prosecution to ask (and get answers to) any questions they want. Luckily, a defendant has the option to not take the stand in their own defense at all.
Fifth Amendment Exceptions
Federal grand juries often issue subpoenas to force people into testifying, but because of their Fifth Amendment rights, people do not have to answer the questions that are asked of them. If they do decide to answer a question while on the stand, however, they basically relinquish their right to plead the Fifth.
Individuals can also plead the Fifth during civil cases, but this right is lost if criminal charges cannot be brought against the individual. For instance, if the statute of limitations related to a specific crime has passed or a criminal charge against a person has already been resolved, they can no longer use the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying.
There are even those out there who ask for immunity for the crimes that they could be charged with in exchange for their testimony. These are the only nuances that exist to the Fifth Amendment, so it’s important for every person charged with a crime or called as a witness to understand their rights under the U.S. Constitution.