The 5th Amendment to the United States Constitution Explained

The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights and has to do with criminal proceedings. Its provisions include: allowing people to be indicted by a grand jury before going to trial, protection against being made to answer more than once for the same crime, allowing people to keep from incriminating themselves, and the right to fair treatment by the court system.

Let’s take a look at each of these in more depth, in order of their appearance in the Fifth Amendment.

Trial By Grand Jury

The first line of the Amendment mentions that people can only be tried for “infamous” crimes if they’re indicted by a grand jury. But what’s a grand jury?

A grand jury is different from the trial jury you’d see in a courtroom TV show because it doesn’t deliver a verdict; it only delivers indictments. The grand jury will look at all the evidence of a case (including some that might not be admissible to a trial jury, such as illegally-obtained evidence) and decide whether or not it’s sufficient to indict (indictment is simply a word for “legally accuse”)the person of the supposed crime.

The text of the Fifth Amendment technically only applies to federal felonies – while all states have laws that permit grand juries, only about half of the states use grand juries. It also only applies to “infamous” or “capital crimes.” This means any crime that has a penalty of more than one year of incarceration, a felony, or a crime that permits the death penalty.

Protection Against Double Jeopardy

The Fifth Amendment also prevents people from being made to answer for the same crime twice (referred to as “double jeopardy”). What this means is that a person can’t be put on trial twice, or sent to prison twice, for the same offense.

This does not apply in the case of a mistrial or if the defendant requests an appeal. A person may also be tried once on the state level, and again on a federal level.

Right to Due Process

The Fifth Amendment states that a person cannot be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law” “Due process” simply means that trials will be conducted fairly and within the bounds of the law – a person accused of a crime can expect to go through a set procedure.

Again, this provision technically only applies to federal courts, but the Fourteenth Amendment has expanded the guarantee of due process to cover all the states.

Protection Against Self-Incrimination

Most people are aware of the expression “I plead the Fifth.” When a person suspected of a crime says this, they’re asserting their right to avoid self-incrimination as guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment. Basically, a person could say something that could be used as evidence against them in a trial – they don’t have to respond to a question if they don’t want to because what they say might be used against them.

The famous “Miranda warning” issued by police also finds its roots in the Fifth Amendment – “you have the right to remain silent” is a direct reference to the section on self-incrimination.

Right to Just Compensation

A government can take private land for public use if it so desires. This ability is called eminent domain. For example, a government could seize part of someone’s estate and use it to construct a section of a new highway. The Fifth Amendment puts a limit on eminent domain, however: if the government does this, they have to pay the owner.

The value paid is called fair market value – essentially, the government must pay what the value of the property would be if bought by an individual on the open market.


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