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What does it mean to “take the fifth?”

On Behalf of | Apr 5, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

If you are a fan of crime shows, you have probably heard a character mention the words, “I’m exercising my right to plead the fifth” But what exactly does this mean?

The U.S. Constitution offers several protections to citizens. One of these is protection from making any statements that can be self-incriminating. In other words, law enforcement cannot compel you to be a witness in your own criminal trial. This protection is enshrined in the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

But isn’t silence a sign of guilt?

Absolutely not. You have the right to invoke your Fifth Amendment rights if you are accused of committing a crime – whether you are innocent of the crime in question or not. While law enforcement might be suspicious of your decision to remain silent, they cannot use this against you in court. For instance, if law enforcement asks if you have been drinking during a DUI stop, you have the right to remain silent. And if you do, they cannot cite your silence as evidence of drunk driving in court. 

So when can you invoke your Fifth Amendment rights

Pleading the fifth has its merits and demerits to the defendant. Here are some of the scenarios when you can plead the fifth during your criminal trial:

  • When you are being compelled to give certain information through a subpoena or police interrogation.
  • When the communication in question is testimonial in nature. That is, if it expresses or implies a fact or belief. For instance, a nod would be considered a testimonial communication as far as an assertion of fact is concerned.
  • When the information is self-incriminating. Simply put, the information must be deemed to provide a link in the chain of evidence necessary for initiating or advancing the prosecution’s case. 

Safeguarding your rights

If you are accused of a crime, you need to protect yourself from utterances that can hurt your case. And part of this may involve exercising your right to remain silent.