Constitution for Idiots 6
Written by Gary McCoy
Global Exclaimer Writer
In our study of the Bill of Rights we have now come to the 5th amendment which most people know but I would venture to say that not many understand. We have all heard “I plead the 5th” on our Law and Order marathon but what does that really mean? The amendment itself says:
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger…” So if we as citizens are arrested on suspicion of a capital crime, say murder of a police officer, the courts could not convict us without having a Grand Jury indict us. According to Webster’s Dictionary a Grand Jury is: a jury that examines accusations against persons charged with crime and if the evidence warrants makes formal charges on which the accused persons are later tried. In all of our discussions thus far, the Framers of the Constitution were very concerned with the right of the individual to have the least amount of government interference in their lives. I think this is no exception.
Let’s take a case study of sorts about this very topic. In 1692 before this was ratified there was a little town in Massachusetts where many people were accused of being witches and consorting with the Devil. There was no real proof but the local government saw fit to try, convict, and execute those people without the benefit of a Grand Jury. You might say “Well there was no such thing as a Grand Jury back then”, BUT the earliest recorded use of the term and application of a Grand Jury was in Ireland in 1166 when a royal justice would travel the kingdom and a group of men were appointed to tell that justice all the crimes that were committed in that area since the last time the justice had been through. As you can see, the use of a Grand Jury to help decide if the burden of proof was met for a specific crime is truly important to the sovereignty of the individual. This of course did not apply in times of war when the accused was acting in the military or in a militia. That portion was later regulated to military tribunals *more on that another time*.
“… nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb…” If you are a Judd’s fan as I am, surely you have seen the Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd movie Double Jeopardy. In the story a woman was accused of killing her husband and ultimately convicted. While in jail she finds out that her husband was in fact alive and framed her for the crime. She then hatches a plan to actually kill her husband for the betrayal and because she has already been convicted of the crime would not have to go back to jail. Justice Served. While this story is a bit far fetched, an individual is not able to be tried for the same crime multiple times.
“… nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself…” NOW we have come to the part everyone has heard before. “Your honor I plead the Fifth”. Simply put you cannot be forced to testify against yourself. You may be asking how this is really important but using history as our guide, what would have happened if this rule was enacted in 1480 during the Spanish Inquisition? Well there wouldn’t have been people tortured in order to have them confess for one. If you were coerced into saying you were guilty it would have been UNCONSTITUTIONAL. Military courts have different rules and the Constitution does not apply to enemy combatants (hopefully squashing the impending arguments). Likewise if we did not have this today we may have been subjected to all manner of torture to obtain a confession.
“…nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…” What would possibly be worse than “the MAN” coming to your house and taking your stuff and then throwing you in jail without so much as a thank you. Much less a trial. Enough said!
“…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” While the most obvious use of this portion of the amendment is Eminent Domain I would like to discuss another application of this law and the negative impact that it produces. Financial private property can also be seized through regulation and not physically removed from the possession of the individual. Um What?!?! Well let’s say the government decides that we need a new railway. The railway will help bring jobs and economic growth to an area. The courts say that they can use eminent domain to seize the front 5000 feet of farmer A’s property to put the line. They pay “fair” compensation to farmer A for relieving him of his property however Farmer B’s house is 200 feet from where the line is going in. Now the government did not take any of Farmer B’s land for this project but the value of his farm and house are severely impacted by this development. That is also considered private property taken. Every state seems to have a different view of this devaluation however most agree that if the value of the property is negatively impacted beyond a certain percent, the government is then liable to pay said owner for the difference of the negative impact and the value before the land seizure.
This amendment is truly important to ensuring person, property, and liberty are maintained. Take this amendment and truly look at the implications if it did not exist. I am sure you can agree that we would live in a MUCH different world had the framers not put this amendment in our Bill of Rights.