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While the Fifth Amendment is a crucial marker of individual rights, the lack of clear definitions and changing political landscapes make its application dangerously subjective.
Your right to "plead the fifth" is a constitutional protection against self-incrimination, but it's only one component of the legal provision that safeguards your rights from unjust criminal prosecution.
The Fifth Amendment protects against double jeopardy, being forced to incriminate oneself, prosecution without a jury of one's peers, and eminent domain. The legal precedents establishing due process protect more than just criminals; everyday citizens are protected from abuse of the justice system.
The provision, in full, dictates: "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 offence 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."
In 2019, what are the limitations of these protections? Are there exceptions? What situations would require you to invoke them? What should you say to activate these rights?
While some may see "pleading the fifth" as tantamount to admitting guilt, it symbolizes your protection from self-incrimination. Cornell Law School defines the term to mean, "The act of implicating oneself in a crime or exposing oneself to criminal prosecution." When questioned by law enforcement during an investigation or during a criminal trial, an individual may refrain from answering questions or submitting requested materials to officials if it's believed that doing so may result in new criminal charges.
However, issues unrelated to criminal matters are not always protected from self-incrimination rights. For example, tax issues are not covered under the law so as to prevent individuals from withholding materials from the IRS. Furthermore, the law becomes murky when external circumstances could easily influence a person's ability to remain silent. Egregious examples of this right being circumvented include forced confessions and unjust interrogations.
As to due process, it's well known that before you can be found guilty of a crime, a grand jury of 16 to 23 people must be presented the case in private and deem that criminal charges justified. While a grand jury acts as "a kind of buffer or referee between the government and the people," an individual has a right to trial by jury. However, the Constitution's vital dictum against citizens being "deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law" is only defined through a series of court rulings and provisions.
Of note is that due process protections are designed for individuals and application "in each case upon individual grounds." Sadly, this means that whole groups or communities are not, strictly speaking, as entitled to due process. For example, entire student bodies, teachers, or consolidated groups like protesters can be given treatment outside of lawful protections.
Lastly, eminent domain is the restricted power of the government to take private property and convert it into public use. Under the Fifth Amendment, the government can only use this power if they provide the private owners with fair compensation. However, abuse of eminent domain is fairly common.
For example, in 2019, Donald Trump defended his demand for a border wall separating the United States and Mexico under the right of eminent domain. While it was originally meant to be an economic benefit, there are no codified measurements of what constitutes "just compensation." The seizure of land by the government quickly becomes exploitative and a violation of privacy that's paramount to government theft.
While the Fifth Amendment is a crucial marker of individual rights, the lack of clear definitions and changing political landscapes make its application dangerously subjective. From due process to eminent domain, there are more exceptions than clear definitions of "justice."
Here are three crucial ways the digital age complicates your protections under the Fourth Amendment.
When the Fourth Amendment codified citizens' protections against government spying in 1791, Americans couldn't say, "Alexa: turn off the lights." With technology pervasively conducting our daily errands, the amendment against illegal search and seizure is not equipped to protect digital users. In fact, David Cole, a law professor of constitutional law and national security at Georgetown University, critiques, "In the modern digital age, it means very, very little."
To be clear, the totality of the Fourth Amendment reads: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
Here are three crucial ways the digital age complicates your protections under the Fourth Amendment:
1. Law enforcement doesn't always require a search warrant to enter your home
When police want to mine your private information on suspicion that you've committed a crime, they have to meet the familiar requirement of "probable cause." Traditionally, they must convince a judge that there is a sound reason to search and/or bug your property for surveillance. True to the wording of the law, your protected personal belongings include your physical body, "houses, papers, and effects."
However, "probable cause" includes the "plain view" clause, wherein authorities have the right to enter your home if they see evidence, contraband, or suspicious materials in your home. In the age of social media, a picture, check-in, or status you post could very well justify law enforcement entering your home without a warrant. The ruling in Katz v. United States stands as the most notable example that qualifies the Fourth Amendment as only applying to situations in which "an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy." When you're sharing the details of your life on social media sites, you waive much of that expectation.
2. Your personal information is no longer "private" from the government once shared on social media
A series of rulings in the 1960s and 1970s began to add exceptions to the "probable cause" requirement. Namely, the government does not need a search warrant to obtain any personal information that you've already shared with somebody else. Hence, the government can obtain any private information given to credit card companies, banks, or phone companies, because you've technically de-privatized the information by using those services.
Of course the same applies to any and all social media accounts. All the government needs is a subpoena, which experts say is "trivially easy to issue."
3. Your location can be tracked by the government
While it may seem obvious to be wary of broadcasting your location at any given time, some personal devices and social media sites automatically tag and record your location. Your whereabouts cease to be a topic of government surveillance when you share the information willingly (which you do by using digital services). As Justice Alito noted when presiding over the United States v. Jones, social media tools "will . . . shape the average person's expectations about the privacy of his or her daily movements." Traditional protections simply don't apply to what you publicize yourself.
Getting to know your Constitution and the rights it guarantees you.
Can you recite the five central freedoms protected by the First Amendment? If not, you aren't alone. The New York Times, citing a recent study by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, revealed that just over half the people surveyed knew that our First Amendment protects freedom of speech, under 25% knew that it protects freedom of religion, under 20% knew that it protects freedom of the press, 14% knew that it protects freedom of association and only 6% knew that it protects the right to petition the government for grievances. Yet another survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 37% of Americans could not even name one right protected under the First Amendment. Back in 2006, one in four Americans could name one right, but more than half could name at least two members of the cartoon family, The Simpsons.