The Fifth Amendment famously gives you the right to remain silent. It means you don't have to testify against yourself. Whether you are guilty or innocent -- pleading the Fifth is not meant to imply guilt, after all -- you simply have the ability to say nothing. This is one of the basic rights granted to all citizens in the United States.
However, there is one way to waive this right in court: if you decide to take the stand and act as a witness in your own trial.
You Don't Have to Be a Witness
Whether or not you want to be a witness is completely up to you. No matter what they believe happened, the police can't make you do it, the prosecution cannot force you, and the judge can never tell you to do so. Even if your own lawyer thought that it was a good idea for you to go on the stand and testify on your own behalf, he or she could give you that advice, but the decision of whether or not you do so always remains yours alone.
Answering All Questions
It is crucially important to stress this because the ramifications of taking the stand can be quite significant. Once you're up there on your own volition, you don't get to pick and choose the questions you answer. You can't answer some and then plead the Fifth on others. You must answer everything. This is true if you're being questioned by your own lawyer or cross-examined by the prosecution.
You must know this in advance. You can't wait until you don't like a question and then say you have a legal right to silence, that you want to get off the stand. It's too late by then. The Bill of Rights gives you extensive protections, but you can choose to waive these and then the Fifth Amendment no longer applies.
It is interesting to note that this only applies to defendants. Other witnesses who are called do still have the right to remain silent, and they can use it on specific questions and not others to avoid implicating themselves.
People have often heard their rights quoted many times -- like the right to remain silent or the right to free speech -- but they don't really know what these mean and how they work. If you're in court, always make sure to know exactly what your rights are.
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