What is Self-incrimination and Why Does it Matter?

What is Self-incrimination and Why Does it Matter?

You might have heard the phrase “I plead the Fifth,” but what does that actually mean? It’s in reference to your Fifth Amendment rights and when spoken, usually regards an important legal safeguard known as the right against self-incrimination.

Self-incrimination definition

Self-incrimination means to implicate oneself in a crime or exposing oneself to criminal prosecution.

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states “No person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Thus, invoking your right against self-incrimination is known as “pleading the Fifth.”

When you invoke this right, you are protecting yourself against making any statements that may incriminate you in a crime, and you also have the right to refuse to make any statements or answer any questions that could establish your guilt.

Taking the stand

Most often the right against self-incrimination applies to trials. However, you may invoke this right during other stages of criminal investigations, including arrest, detention, booking and more. Sometimes it is imperative to “plead the Fifth” if law enforcement threatens force, intimidation, harm to a family member in order to obtain a confession, seizure of property in order to obtain a confession, and if they continue interrogation after a defendant or suspect has refused to speak unless an attorney is present.

During a trial, the Fifth Amendment provides the right to a defendant to not make self-incriminating statements, and also allows the defendant to choose not to testify on their own behalf. No one can force the defendant to take to the witness stand and potentially utter self-incriminating details. The jury is not permitted to take the defendant’s decision to not testify into their consideration over whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. The Supreme Court held in 1965 that if the accused invokes their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, neither the prosecutor nor the judge may tell the jury that the defendant’s silence means they are admitting their guilt.

If a defendant does take the stand, they are said to have waived their Fifth Amendment right to not testify, and they must answer all questions within the rules of evidence that the attorneys or judge may have in place.

Witnesses in a trial are allowed to “plead the Fifth” when they are on the stand, in case their answer might implicate them in a crime. That’s because unlike defendants, witnesses can be forced or subpoenaed to testify.


The Fifth Amendment clause that allows for individuals to guard against self-incrimination is important because it can change the outcome of a case and impact a defendant’s life.

If an officer does not plan on interrogating an individual, they do not have to inform them of their rights under the Fifth Amendment (known as Miranda Rights). If that person makes a self-incriminating statement voluntarily, it could end up being admissible in court and could change the outcome of a case. Self-incriminating statements made before someone is arrested can also be used as evidence during a trial.

If you or someone you know are in need of a criminal defense attorney, please contact the Law Offices of Julie Rendelman, LLC.