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I Plead Fifth…but What Exactly Does That Mean?

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Lois Lerner, the Internal Revenue Service official at the center of the alleged targeting of Tea Party political groups that applied for tax-exempt status in 2010 and 2012, recently invoked the Fifth Amendment when called to testify before the United States Congress about her involvement in the politically-charged scandal. If she has not been charged with any crimes, why did she take the Fifth?

An Essential Constitutional Right

The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights, a fundamental collection of freedoms and protections enjoyed by people in the U.S. This important amendment establishes, among other things, the right to remain silent in certain circumstances. The Miranda Rights are based on the Fifth Amendment, which also protects those who are under criminal investigation or prosecution from being forced to incriminate themselves through testimony or action.

In the case of Lois Lerner, she probably took the Fifth to avoid giving explanations that might put her at political risk. She was testifying under oath before Congress, and she likely thought that her answers could be used against her in the future. She would not be incriminating herself since she has not been charged with any crimes, but she preferred to not give testimony that might further implicate her in the scandal.

Pleading the Fifth in Criminal Cases

Criminal defense attorneys often remind their clients that they should never feel obligated to say anything to law enforcement agents or prosecutors, especially when their legal counsel is not present. When police officers perform arrests and read Miranda Warnings, they do not stop trying to elicit information from suspects.

Defendants can be compelled to testify in court or give a deposition, but they do not have to answer questions that they feel might incriminate them. These are the type of questions that prosecutors and investigators will often ask for the purpose of getting a conviction, but defendants do not have to answer them based on the protection provided by the Fifth Amendment.

The Fifth Amendment cannot be invoked when a defendant serves as his or her own witness in a criminal trial; however, defendants are not obligated to be their own witness and can refuse to testify altogether.

When the Fifth Does Not Apply

Individuals under subpoena by federal grand juries must exercise caution when invoking the Fifth Amendment. Many attorneys recommend refusing to answer all questions since merely providing one answer could be construed as waiving Constitutional protections.

The Fifth Amendment only protects criminal defendants. Refusing to testify at civil trials may result in court fines. In situations when providing some information may be beneficial to the defendant or to the prosecution, testimony can be used as a bargaining chip to reduce the severity of the charges or alleviate possible punishments.

Get Sound Legal Advice

One of the smartest things you can do if you have been arrested is speak to a qualified legal attorney who understands the law. Get a hold of Brett Podolsky today for free legal consultation by calling 713-227-0087.

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