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When Should You Plead the Fifth?

Posted on August 1, 2022 in

Anyone who has watched any courtroom TV drama knows the phrase, “I plead the fifth” by someone on the stand. But what does it actually mean?

In short, pleading the fifth refers to the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which protects Americans’ right to remain silent or share information with police that may incriminate them while in custody or court. It’s also called “the right against self-incrimination.”

If you find yourself battling criminal charges and determining whether or not you should plead the fifth, you also have the right to an attorney and should hire one. Here is what else you should know about the Fifth Amendment.

What Else Does the Fifth Amendment Protect?

The Fifth Amendment was designed to protect the rights of the accused, due process of law, and related complications. It also protects the accused by:

  • Giving them the right to a grand jury to decide whether or not federal charges will be made.
  • Protecting them against self-incrimination, means the suspect can refuse to answer a question that could potentially make them look guilty.
  • Protecting them from “double jeopardy,” forbids the suspect from being tried for the same crime twice.

How and When Can You Plead the Fifth?

While pleading the fifth is an act of exercising your American rights in the criminal justice system, it does not work in each and every legal case. The defendant charged with a crime asked to testify can plead the fifth and decline answering any questions, but keep these facts about it in mind:

  • It protects you from accidentally confessing to a crime, so if you do not want to answer any questions on the stand, plead the fifth immediately and request a criminal defense attorney.
  • It does not protect you from answering basic questions at the original police stop, like those that confirm your identity; if you do not, you can be arrested.
  • It does protect you from testifying, but you cannot necessarily avoid charges and skip trial, or you could face jail time.

Does Pleading the Fifth Make Me Look Guilty?

It may seem like choosing to plead the fifth and remain silent may make a defendant look guilty, but this is not the case. If a defendant pleads the fifth, the prosecutor legally cannot argue to the jury that this implies guilt. Likewise, choosing not to answer questions cannot be used as evidence against the defendant during a trial. 

Juries, however, can make their decision based on the defendant’s choice to plead the fifth. Other options for a defendant may just be to answer the prosecutor’s questioning with vague phrases, such as “I don’t know.”

When Should You Hire an Attorney if Pleading the Fifth?

If you are facing criminal charges, you should plead the fifth until you hire an experienced criminal defense attorney, like the Law Office of David A. Breston, to further discuss your case and the legal options that are best for you. We are here to answer any questions you may have in these complicated situations.