Freedom from Self-Incrimination: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Dustin Parrett
This lesson explains what it means to 'have the right to remain silent.' We will learn what the freedom from self-incrimination found in the Fifth Amendment is and what it means today.

Definition

'You have the right to remain silent' is a common expression in the United States famously uttered by police officers as they arrest a suspect, but what does it actually mean? The freedom from self-incrimination is a longstanding legal tradition that means a person accused of a crime cannot be forced to provide evidence against themselves, whether that be to answer questions from police or to volunteer information on their own.

In the United States, this freedom is enshrined in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution when it says 'No person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.' So, when someone is told they 'have the right to remain silent' it means they don't have to answer any questions because of the Fifth Amendment.

The Right to Remain Silent

You might ask yourself, 'Why do criminals have a right to not answer questions from the police, isn't this a bad thing?' The freedom of self-incrimination protects the innocent as well as the guilty by limiting the power of the government. The government includes not only police officers, but courts, juries, and even Congress.

Imagine when you were a kid in school and someone accused you of stealing their lunch. What if the teacher said that if you didn't admit to doing it they would call your parents and have you suspended, but if you admitted to it you would only get a detention? Wouldn't you feel scared and pressured to admit to something you didn't do? The Fifth Amendment prevents this from happening in the real world by making the government, the teacher in this example, prove who was truly guilty without forcing anyone to confess.

Before the U.S. Constitution was written, the government could force people to answer questions or accusations about crimes. The government would sometimes use torture, violence, imprisonment, or other threats to coerce citizens into answering their questions. This coercion often led to people providing answers the government wanted to hear to avoid further punishment, like admitting to a crime they didn't commit.

Not only did this mean that innocent people could be forced to confess, it also meant that the government had nearly limitless power. The government simply had to accuse someone of a crime and then force them to confess. However, with the freedom from self-incrimination safeguarded in the Constitution, the government must do a more convincing job of proving a suspect's guilt. Instead of the teacher in our example above threatening you, they would have to do a better job of investigating and proving who was truly guilty.

Protecting the rights of people, including the freedom from self-incrimination, simply means that the government bears the burden of producing convincing evidence to prove a person's guilt without violating a person's freedoms. This is to protect people from an overzealous and overly powerful government, not to protect criminals.

Invoking the protections of the Fifth Amendment by refusing to testify against oneself is not an admission of guilt. Additionally, innocent people are often advised to invoke their freedom from self-incrimination by remaining silent simply because whatever they say can be used against them. This has led to another famous expression: 'I plead the Fifth.' When someone is asked a question they feel they do not want to answer or do not feel they need to answer they will often invoke their protections under the Fifth Amendment and it cannot be held against them.

The Miranda Warnings

Since the writing of the Constitution, the freedom from self-incrimination protected by the Fifth Amendment has been clarified by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court settles disputes about the meaning and interpretation of the Constitution, and the Fifth Amendment has been a source of disagreement over the years.

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