Even if you’ve never studied law or sat for a bar exam, you likely have heard the phrase “pleading the Fifth.” It’s become part of our national lexicon, so most Americans know they have the right not to answer police questions both while in custody or in court. The right against self-incrimination is spelled out in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and also extends to state and local jurisdictions. When someone exercises this right, we often say that they “plead the Fifth.”
The Constitution grants this right quite simply: “[No person]…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself…” However, as with most other constitutional rights, it is subject to interpretation by the courts and often inspires fierce debate.
This article focuses on the self-incrimination clause of the Fifth Amendment in legal proceedings. For details about your right to remain silent while in police custody, check out FindLaw’s Miranda Rights section. See Double Jeopardy; How Does a Grand Jury Work?; and The Appeal, Writ, and Habeas Corpus Petition Process to learn about other provisions of the Fifth Amendment.
The Origin of Pleading the Fifth
The right against self-incrimination is rooted in the Puritans’ refusal to cooperate with interrogators in 17th century England. They often were coerced or tortured into confessing their religious affiliation and were considered guilty if they remained silent. English law granted its citizens the right against self-incrimination in the mid-1600s, when a revolution established greater parliamentary power.
Puritans who fled religious persecution brought this idea with them to America, where it would eventually become codified in the Bill of Rights. Today, courts have found the right against self-incrimination to include testimonial or communicative evidence at police interrogations and legal proceedings.
Testifying in a Legal Proceeding
At trial, the Fifth Amendment gives a criminal defendant the right not to testify. This means that the prosecutor, the judge, and even the defendant’s own lawyer cannot force the defendant to take the witness stand against his or her will. However, a defendant who does choose to testify cannot choose to answer some questions but not others. Once the defendant takes the witness stand, this particular Fifth Amendment right is considered waived throughout the trial.
When a defendant pleads the Fifth, jurors are not permitted to take the refusal to testify into consideration when deciding whether a defendant is guilty. In the 2001 case Ohio v. Reiner, the U.S. Supreme Court held 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.” This case beefed up an earlier ruling that prosecutors can’t ask a jury to draw an inference of guilt from a defendant’s refusal to testify in his own defense.
Defendants may assert their Fifth Amendment rights during civil trials, too, if testimony would open them up to criminal charges. But they do not enjoy the same protections against jury bias with respect to liability. This means that a jury is free to make inferences when a defendant chooses not to testify in a civil trial for fear of self-incrimination. Civil defendants often claim ignorance (“I don’t recall”) instead of pleading the Fifth in such situations.
Can Any Witness Plead the Fifth?
At a criminal trial, it is not only the defendant who enjoys the Fifth Amendment right not to testify. Witnesses who are called to the witness stand can refuse to answer certain questions if answering would implicate them in any type of criminal activity (not limited to the case being tried). Witnesses (as well as defendants) in organized crime trials often plead the Fifth, for instance.
But unlike defendants, witnesses who assert this right may do so selectively and do not waive their rights the moment they begin answering questions. Also, unlike defendants, witnesses may be forced by law to testify (typically by subpoena).
Does the Fifth Amendment Apply to Fingerprints and Blood Tests?
The Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination does not extend to the collection of DNA or fingerprints in connection with a criminal case. The Supreme Court has held the privilege extends only to communicative evidence, and DNA and fingerprint evidence is considered non-testimonial.
If you have additional questions about your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, or need representation, consider calling a criminal defense attorney.
Getting Legal Help with Your Fifth Amendment Questions
Legal proceedings can be tricky to understand, especially if it's your first time in the criminal justice system. If you have questions about your Fifth Amendment rights, or you're facing criminal charges, you may want to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney near you to ensure that these, and other critical rights, are protected.