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What is perjury?

UPDATED: February 20, 2013

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Perjury is the criminal offense of lying under oath. A perjury charge may be brought when someone makes a false statement after being sworn in or promising to tell the truth in a legal situation. For instance, a person giving testimony on the stand during a court case who tells a lie may be charged with perjury. Someone who lies during a deposition, or who lies on a signed declaration or affidavit can also be charged with this offense.

Perjury Laws

Both individual states and the federal government have laws making perjury a criminal offense. While the basic definition of perjury is the same at both the federal and the state level, the penalties may be different. For instance, the federal law against perjury in the U.S. Code classifies perjury as a felony. This means that someone who lies under oath in federal court, or who lies under oath to a person acting on behalf of the federal government may be sentenced to up to five years in jail.

Some states classify perjury as a felony as well. Penalties for a felony are always more serious than a misdemeanor and can include large fines, and a year or more of jail or prison time. In other states, however, perjury may be a misdemeanor. In New York, for instance, whether perjury is a felony or a misdemeanor depends upon the lie that was told and the impact of that lie. Under New York law, simply telling a lie under oath is a class A misdemeanor, but telling a material lie under oath, or an important lie, is a felony. 

Elements of Perjury

In order for a defendant to be found guilty of perjury, the prosecutor must prove all elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Although the elements of perjury vary between individual states and federal law, the elements of perjury are similar. In order for a person to be charged with perjury, he or she generally must have 1) been sworn in or made a solemn legal promise to tell the truth; and 2) made a false statement or told a lie on purpose. Prosecutors can sometimes prove that a defendant lied by showing inconsistency in prior statements made by the defendant. For instance, if a person testifies one way in a deposition and another way in court, and the statements conflict with one another, this is solid evidence of perjury even if the prosecutor cannot prove which of the statements was untrue.

Most states and the federal government have an additional requirement, that the misstatement was material or important to the proceedings in which it was made. If a witness was testifying in case about a robbery of a diner, for example, lying about whether he saw the defendant at the diner would be material since seeing the defendant at the scene of the crime would be relevant to the defendant's guilt or innocence. Lying about what he ate for breakfast, on the other hand, usually wouldn't be a material misstatement that would result in a charge of perjury.

Defenses to Perjury Charges

Perjury charges are usually very difficult for prosecutors to prove because perjury is a crime of intent. This means that a defendant charged with perjury can only be found guilty if the prosecutor shows beyond a reasonable doubt that he or she intended to make the false statement under oath, or, that the witness told the lie on purpose. As such, criminal attorneys often defend their clients by arguing that the defendant did not intend to lie, or that the party believed the statement to be the truth at the time they made it. 

Making a mistake or remembering facts inaccurately is not an intentional misstatement, so if a defendant successfully argues that he simply made an error he cannot be found guilty of perjury. It tends to be difficult for a prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the misstatement wasn't just a mistake, so this defense is often successful.

Lawyers defending clients accused of perjury also typically make the arguement that the misstatement was not material or relevant to the proceedings. However, this defense requires attorneys to show that the statement was actually irrelevant; it is not enough to show that the defendant believed his lie was not relevant. Courts have consistently held that a person's belief about whether his statement was material or not isn't the important factor. Instead, the important factor is whether the statement pertained to an issue viewed as objectively material by the court. 

Another good defense to perjury charges is proving that the false statement was corrected before it had an impact. For instance, if a party said something untrue under oath but recanted before the statement had any legal effect, such as before the jury considered its truth during the trial, then the defendant could not be found guilty of perjury.


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