Can I recant a false statement to the police made several years ago about a drug dealer?

You can certainly recant your false statement, but you should consider the pros and cons of doing so. Was your false statement an important piece of evidence leading to the dealer’s conviction? Or was your statement only marginally important? How will revealing the truth impact your own liability? Lying to the police in the course of an investigation is, itself, a crime. And if the defendant ended up suffering needlessly because of your dishonesty, he or she may have a claim against you. Does it make sense to put yourself in a compromising situation revealing a statement that had only a marginal impact on the dealer’s conviction? These are the questions you must grapple with before you decide to recant a false statement.

You can do or say pretty much anything you want, so you could recant. The real question is should you?

First, bear in mind that not all false statements are created equal in terms of their impact on the accused. Clearly, some are critical: if your statement, for example, was the main evidence against the accused, then your statement may have caused his or her conviction. In that case, recanting now may provide grounds for an appeal and/or a new trial.

Other statements are not important. Let’s say that the police had strong physical evidence and evidence from surveillance and could have convicted the drug dealer based on that alone. In that case, your statement may have not made any difference in the outcome. In this instance, recanting will likely not change anything. This is important to consider in weighing what you should do, because there are consequences you may suffer. So the question is, is it worth risking those consequences if recanting would not make a difference?

So what are potential consequences? If your statement was false, you committed at least one, maybe more, crimes. At a minimum, it is a crime to lie to the police during an investigation. The exact nature and severity of the crime will vary depending on which state you are in, but in every state, lying about a crime (making a false statement to the police) is itself a crime. And if you made the statement under oath, such as during a deposition, in a sworn written statement, or at trial, you may also have committed perjury. So, recanting can potentially expose you to criminal liability (to being charged and possibly jailed) for having made a false statement in the first place.

Second, say that your statement wrongly caused the accused to be convicted. In that case, you may have caused him to spend several years in jail when he should not have. That is the sort of thing that you could be sued over—potentially for a lot of money. (Consider the value of 4, 5, 6 or more years of someone’s life.) You could be exposing yourself to significant liability by recanting.

Now, we should all do the right thing, and you have to do that which will let you sleep at night and live with yourself. But we would be remiss if we did not advise you to consider carefully the potential impact on yourself and balance it against the effect of recanting. If your testimony was critical, then recanting now can correct an injustice; but if your testimony made little or no difference, you do need to ask yourself if it is worth exposing yourself to those consequences, some of which (e.g., the penalties for a false statement to the police and for perjury) could fall on you even for what turns out to be an unimportant false statement, for something that may have little or no effect.