Perjury is the crime of telling a lie while under oath. While it may seem that telling a lie is not serious enough to be considered a crime, the truth is that the act of lying under oath can completely wreak havoc with discovering the truth, which is the cornerstone of the American justice system. Because of this, perjury is considered a serious offense. In fact, it is considered to be so serious that federal law allows for the sentencing of up to five years in prison plus fines, for a perjury conviction.
In the past, perjury was simply lying while testifying in court. However , ue to the changing processes of how certain crimes are determined, perjury laws now cover more than just trials. They also cover Congressional committee hearings, family law court, grand juries, bail hearings, civil lawsuit depositions, financial affidavits, and sworn statements that are made to government agencies. Additionally, causing another person to commit perjury is called suborning perjury and is also considered to be a criminal offense.
Not all untruths are perjury and there are some specific points that can help clarify whether or not an untruth qualifies as perjury:
- Can only happen while under oath
- A statement is required
- Not all false testimony is included
- Inconsistent statements are considered
- Must be an official proceeding
- Must be material to the case
- Not required to affect the outcome
Perjury can only happen when a person is under oath. If the witness did not vow to tell the truth, and if they did not make this vow to someone who has the legal authorization to administer such an oath, then any false statements made can not be considered perjury. Government officials, notary publics and judges are examples of positions that are authorized to administer an oath. Additionally, the proceeding in which the witness is testifying must be “competent” or authorized by law. If any of these requirements are not in place, then any false testimony does not count as perjury. For example, A witness testifies before a grand jury, where they took an oath to tell the truth, and the oath was administered by a government official, however, the grand jury’s investigation has gone beyond the powers granted it by law, therefore, it is not considered to be a competent proceeding. In this particular set of circumstances, any untruthful statement from the witness could not be considered perjury.
Perjury requires that the witness gives a statement. If a witness remains silent or refuses to provide a statement, they have not committed perjury. However, it is important to note that a statement does not have to be verbal. If a false writing is authenticated while under oath, that would qualify as perjury.
The intention is important in many perjury cases. For an untruth to be considered as perjury, the witness must have known that the testimony they were providing was false and they must have provided the untrue information as a way to intentionally mislead the court.
Not all false testimony is considered perjury. It is possible for false testimony to be the result of several different things including lapse of memory, confusion or even just a mistake. These situations are not considered to be perjury.
Even though the court recognizes that confusion and memory lapse can play a role in a witness testifying to an untruth, an inconsistent statement can lead to perjury. The testimony of a witness is considered as a whole. That means that if a witness claims that they are unable to remember or recall an event but then is able to clearly recall the event when questioned later, they may possibly have committed perjury. However, if the testimony of a witness is inconsistent in a way that has no importance to the proceeding, that would not be considered perjury.
For perjury to take place, the witness must be testifying at an official proceeding. False statements that are made outside of the confines of official proceedings do not constitute as perjury. For example, lying to an attorney who is taking notes is not perjury. However, if the attorney used the false information to draft an affidavit and later on the witness signs the affidavit under oath, that is considered perjury. Written and sworn statements that are submitted to government agencies or to the courts, are considered to be statements that were made in a proceeding and as such, they are subject to perjury laws.
For an untrue statement to be considered perjury, it must be material to the case. What this means is that the false statement must be directly related to the subject of the proceeding and it must be capable of having an influence on the proceeding. If the false statement could cause an investigation to be hampered or mislead then it can be considered perjury. However, not all lies that are told under oath meet this criteria, which means that not all direct lies that are told under oath are considered to be perjury. For example, if a witness were to falsely brag that they are a strict vegetarian when in reality they ate a steak the night before, while testifying in a proceeding that has nothing to do with food or vegetarians, they are not likely to face perjury charges.
Superfluous material statements can still be perjury. What this means is that if a witness intentionally provides a false material statement, even if the statement does not affect the outcome of the case, that witness could still be prosecuted for perjury.
Common Defenses to Perjury charges include:
- True statements
- Recanted or corrected statements
If a person is convicted of perjury in federal court, the allowed penalty is up to 5 years in prison, as well as, potential fines. While state law concerning perjury convictions does vary from state to state, it is important to recognize that perjury is a felony. Perjury penalties are typically increased in proportion to the extent in which the perjury may have interfered with the proceeding. If a witness lied under oath in an effort to hide or assist a crime, the witness may find themselves charged as accessories to the crime.
Perjury is a very complex crime and if a person finds themselves being investigated for or charged with perjury, it is recommended that they consult with an attorney who understands perjury cases.