The Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution states that no citizen “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself…”.
And this is the principle of Pleading the Fifth.
It is the right of a defendant to remain silent, even though they are under oath. This is why an attorney cannot simply ask a defendant to confess when they are under oath.
When you “plead the fifth”, you are protected from being forced to incriminate yourself.
The paradox of “pleading the Fifth” however, is that whoever uses it immediately puts themself in a situation where they seem guilty in whatever they are accused of, and at this point, the only reason they are not sentenced is because they haven’t confessed, and there is not enough solid proof.
If you “plead the Fifth”, everyone knows you are guilty.
The argument for the Fifth amendment is upheld by the possibility that the accused may be innocent, but have various reasons to be afraid to share any details.
The amendment was ratified in 1791, and is the basis of the Miranda right “to remain silent”.
To “plead the Fifth amendment” was the original phrase, but was shortened for convenience around the mid 20th century.
Although to “plead the Fifth” is mainly used in criminal court circumstances, some has started using it as a slang for when you simply don’t want to answer an uncomfortable question in colloquial speech.
In the TV show Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, guests are asked to play “plead the fifth”, a game where they must answer 3 questions truthfully, and they can only “plead the fifth” once.
- Annenberg Classroom – Fifth Amendment (1791)