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What Does It Mean to Plead the Fifth?

What Does It Mean to Plead the Fifth?

Meaning and Impacts of Pleading the Fifth

“I plead the fifth.”

You’ve probably heard this phrase in your favorite TV shows and movies, but you may not understand what this amendment implies. A popular belief is that pleading the fifth simply means “I refuse to answer this question.” This is true to an extent, however, it’s deeper than that.

The Fifth Amendment grants several rights to criminal defendants, guaranteeing the right to a grand jury, forbidding “double jeopardy” (being prosecuting twice for the same crime), and protecting against self-incrimination. As such, there is a reason that your Miranda Rights include the right to remain silent, as it is guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment in certain instances.

But in what situations can you exercise that right, specifically?

You can plead the fifth under the following circumstances, although certain restrictions may apply:

  • You are a criminal defendant who is called to testify at trial
  • You are a witness who is called to testify at a criminal trial
  • You are pulled over at a traffic stop
  • You are arrested

With this in mind, know that if you are accused of a crime and your case goes to court, you may choose NOT to take the stand and testify. Defendants who invoke their Fifth Amendment rights at trial do not have to answer any questions in order to protect themselves from self-incrimination. Keep in mind that if you take this route in your own criminal case, you cannot take it back. In other words, once you plead the fifth, you cannot answer any questions throughout your testimony. You cannot pick and choose which questions to answer and which ones to ignore.

If you are a witness called to the stand in a criminal trial, you CAN pick and choose which questions to answer. This means that you can invoke your Fifth Amendment right for some questions and not others, unlike criminal defendants. However, if you are forced to testify because you were subpoenaed by the court, prosecutors may offer you immunity from being charged for a crime if you make self-incriminating statements. If immunity is not offered, prosecutors may offer to reduce your charges if you give a full testimony.

Another case in which you can plead the fifth is at a traffic stop. Under the law, you must provide your driver’s license and registration upon the officer’s request. Police officers are allowed to ask you identifying questions such as your name, address, and birthday and you must answer. However, you can plead the fifth if an officer takes it further, asking, “Do you know why I pulled you over? Do you know how fast you were driving? How much have you had to drink?” Questions like these may invoke incriminating answers, so you may choose to plead the fifth as a result.

Arrested? While it may seem like you must comply with the police officer’s questions and demands because you’re in handcuffs, that may not always be the case. Typically, arrestees will receive a Miranda waiver before being interrogated by the police. If a person signs the waiver, that means they waived their right to remain silent, therefore, their answers may be used against them in court. Thus, it may be in your best interests to avoid signing the waiver and call a lawyer instead.

Were Your Rights Violated?

It is all too common for people’s Fifth Amendment rights to be violated. Police officers may threaten or intimidate suspects into making incriminating statements at a traffic stop or after an arrest, while defendants and witnesses may be manipulated into waiving their Fifth Amendment rights in court.

If you have any questions about invoking your rights or believe your Fifth Amendment rights were violated, give us a call at (510) 907-6600 today!