The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents anyone from being “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” A party in a Texas civil case can “plead the Fifth” during discovery to avoid answering questions in a deposition if the party reasonably believes the answer might incriminate him in a criminal case. A plaintiff cannot, however, use the Fifth Amendment to prevent the other party from obtaining information they need to prepare a defense. A trial court can impose sanctions when a party uses the Fifth Amendment privilege offensively, but the court must consider whether remedial steps could solve the issue. The court may also impose sanctions when a party wrongfully invokes the Fifth Amendment.
In a recent Texas divorce case, the husband faced serious sanctions after raising the Fifth Amendment during his deposition. In June 2015, the wife filed for divorce and the husband filed a counterpetition. The wife alleged the husband had assaulted her and committed adultery. She also alleged he hid community assets, wrote fraudulent checks to third parties and cashed them himself, and conveyed community property to his sister. The husband alleged the wife also secreted assets and filed false charges against him for family violence assault.
When the wife’s attorney sent notice of the date of the husband’s deposition, his attorney responded it would be “futile” because the husband’s criminal attorney was likely to advise him to “plead the fifth” due to the pending criminal charges. During deposition, the husband refused to answer many questions on the grounds his answer might incriminate him in the pending criminal case, including some that would not be covered by the Fifth Amendment privilege. He repeatedly asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege regarding “anything that has to do with financials…” He refused to answer questions regarding his income, assets, and a list of property. He also refused to identify documents. There was no record of either the wife’s or the husband’s attorney explaining to him why he could not invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege in response to many of the questions asked.