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An overview of self-incrimination

Perhaps you’ve heard the term “I plead the fifth” in passing and gone on not to give it a second thought. You would not be alone in this instance. But what does this term mean and does it apply to real criminal cases?

In a criminal case, it is up to the prosecution to offer evidence that establishes guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Until such a time, any person accused of an offense technically remains innocent. Parties to a criminal case cannot be compelled to make statements that are self-incriminating. This legal right is enshrined within the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

When does this legal right apply?

A defendant is safeguarded from making self-incriminating statements throughout a criminal case. This includes from the moment they are subject to investigation until the commencement of any resulting trial. Although it is possible for a defendant to waive their Fifth Amendment rights and take to the stand to offer their version of events, they are not obliged to do so. If Fifth Amendment rights are invoked, and a defendant chooses not to testify, this must not be taken as an indication of guilt. After all, a person is innocent until proven guilty rather than guilty until proven innocent.

For the integrity of the criminal justice system to be upheld, it is vital that rights guaranteed under the constitution are honored. Defendants should not be coerced into making involuntary statements that jeopardize their best interests. If you are facing criminal charges, recognizing the legal protections at your disposal could ensure that you are not convicted of a crime that you did not commit.