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 provides protections 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."