This is part four in our Bill of Rights education series. Check out the introductionpart two, and part three!

I Plead The Fifth

Amendment 5: 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.

The 5th Amendment is one of the better-known Constitutional Amendments since we frequently hear references to suspects of criminal activity pleading the fifth on TV shows and movies. =

But what does it mean to plead the fifth? This amendment protects each citizen from four different things:

  1. Individuals cannot be indicted for a serious crime without a Grand Jury.
  2. Individuals cannot be subjected to “double jeopardy”.
  3. Individuals cannot be compelled to be a witness against themselves.
  4. You have the right to “due process”.

These four things all have a common history in England, as most of the provisions in the Bill of Rights are aiming at preventing the recurrence of specific abuses that were familiar to countries throughout history.

Knowledge is Power

The 5th Amendment gives the defendant a right to a Grand Jury.

A Grand Jury is a group that decides whether to bring a charge against someone. The group doesn’t decide guilt or innocence — they decide whether there was a probable cause that someone committed a crime in question. The Grand Jury serves to examine the legitimacy of bringing a case to court.

To put in simpler terms, the Grand Jury acts as a referee between the Government and the citizenry.

Double Jeopardy

Aforementioned is a term known as double jeopardy.

If we didn’t have a Double Jeopardy Clause, the government could prosecute you for the same crime over and over until they were able to secure a conviction. Although there are specific stipulations surrounding this certain clause concerning States’ rights, this clause basically tells the government, “you’ve got one shot.”


The 5th Amendment privilege that is most known is pleading the fifth.

This privilege states that a forced testimony of an individual cannot hold as incriminating evidence. Human memory can be faulty, especially under stressful circumstances, and this privilege works in the favor of the defendant.

The European system relied on what is known as juridical torture. This was the common practice of judges being authorized to torture people into confessing to a crime, even if they did not commit that crime.

Another example of abuse of power was The Court of Star Chamber during the medieval era in England. They used what was known as Oath Ex Officio. This was the practice of someone being sworn in to be cross-examined without knowing the charges.

The Founders didn’t want these previous abuses of power to reappear at any point in our country.

Due Process

One right included in the 5th Amendment goes back to the Magna Carta. The Due Process Clause states that no person can be injured by law and after a trial.

King John of England would execute rebels, and then hold a trial for them. Thankfully, due process means there is judgement before punishment in the US system of law.

Although the Constitution only mentions due process twice, its intent is very clear. No one shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”

We should all feel indebted to our Founders for the system that they set in place to make sure that the abuses of the past would not be a part of our lives today. Consequently, it is imperative we continue to have a firm grip on our God-given liberties.

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