Fifth Amendment in Simple Terms: Here’s why it’s more than “Pleading the Fifth”
The 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is another law contained within the Bill of Rights.
The 5th Amendment text reads:
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
What is the 5th Amendment About?
Have you ever heard the phrase “pleading the fifth?” That comes directly from our 5th Amendment, which protects U.S. citizens from having to testify against themselves in a court of law. The 5th Amendment also ensures the rights to a grand jury trial for capital offenses, protects against “double jeopardy” where a person cannot be tried for the same crime twice and allows you to keep quiet and not give testimony that might incriminate you. In layman’s terms, this means you do not have to answer any questions at your criminal trial and cannot be made to take the witness stand.
The 5th Amendment has more to it than that. There is also a Due Process Clause that ensures every citizen’s rights to life, liberty, and property with due process of the law. Finally, the 5th Amendment also governs eminent domain laws so that if the government has to take your property, they must compensate you fairly for it.
Where is the 5th Amendment Used?
The Miranda warning that police officers must legally provide to someone they are arresting comes from the 5th Amendment. It’s every citizen's right to remain silent and not answer any questions that might incriminate them or their court records.
If something goes wrong with a criminal case and the federal government has to dismiss, you cannot then be re-tried for the same crime. Double jeopardy is a favorite theme in crime drama movies and a valid part of the protection every citizen enjoys against the federal government and the Grand Jury.
Famous 5th Amendment Cases
An interesting take on the 5th Amendment was the Blockburger v. United States case in 1932 where the court ruled that double jeopardy does not apply if during a single act the person commits two crimes and can indeed be tried for both.
1940 saw the landmark case Chambers v. Florida where police officers brutalized four black men and forced them to confess to murder. They were sentenced to death until the Supreme Court took issue with violation of the men’s 5th Amendment rights and reversed the ruling.
Then in 1944 with Ashcraft v. Tennessee, the Supreme Court and Justice Hugo Black took issue with police conduct when they interrogated a suspect for 38-straight hours and forced a confession from him. Suspects are not to be tortured or coerced in any way to obtain a confession.
In California v. Stewart police arrested a man and four other people on suspected robbery and murder. Stewart was relentlessly interrogated over nine days until confessing to the crime; he was sentenced to death. The Supreme Court overruled because Steward was never advised of his right to remain silent or his right to an attorney.
The case Miranda v. Arizona (1966) is why law enforcement is now required to read suspects the Miranda warning. This case focused on the fact that suspects must know and understand their rights during the due process of law.
In 2004 in Hiibel vs. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada ruled that when an officer suspects you of a crime and asks you to identify yourself, you do not have the right to refuse under the 5th Amendment.
Modern Society and the 5th Amendment
Honestly, all clauses included in the 5th Amendment come up regularly in modern society. Capital cases all over the United States are tried with a Grand Jury. Defendants often plead the fifth and refuse to speak at their trials. Every day when local police arrest someone and read their Miranda rights, the 5th Amendment is invoked. The courts still determine if someone can be tried for an offense based on double jeopardy laws and if the government seizes your land you have the rights to “just compensation.” U.S. citizens may not even be aware that they are being protected with due process, but they are thanks to the 5th Amendment.
Since 1791 when the Bill of Rights was ratified, this particular amendment is widely used every day throughout the country. There has been no degradation of use or intent since our forefathers put this law into place as part of the U.S. Bill of Rights.