Perjury and false statements

Definition of perjury

You might have seen it on television or in the movies: During a trial, a courtroom clerk asks a witness to raise their right hand and swear under penalty of perjury that they’re about to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Perjury is when a person knowingly makes a false statement while they are under oath. The most immediate thing that comes to mind might be that courtroom scene in a movie or TV show, but a person can commit perjury by making false statements in other ways, including on official documents where they swear under penalty of perjury to tell the truth.

What is perjury, and what isn’t?

Law students practice cross-examination during a mock trial. (Photo: Penn State Law via Flickr Creative Commons)

A person typically is under oath after being sworn in some capacity. Witnesses in a court proceeding are typically “sworn in” before they testify in a case. When filing a police report or making some kind of legal complaint, a person declares under penalty of perjury that the information they are providing is true to the best of their knowledge.

Someone might be accused of perjury if someone — usually a prosecutor — has some reason to believe that person knowingly made a false statement when they were under oath. That could be something as simple as knowingly making a false representation of financial figures on a document that a person signed under penalty of perjury, or lying while on the witness stand in order to sway a juror or judge in a civil or criminal trial.

For something to be perjury, a prosecutor has to prove that the person knowingly and intentionally made a false statement. Normally, it isn’t considered perjury if someone made an honest mistake, had a lapse in memory or simply forgot certain facts.

Here’s an example: Let’s say a witness is called in a criminal proceeding to testify against a suspect who is accused of assaulting another person at a basketball game. When an attorney for one side asks the witness to describe the clothing the alleged suspect was wearing the night of the attack, the witness can’t remember. As the testimony continues, the witness begins describing what happened that night. At some point in their story, the witness remembers seeing the suspect pull a weapon out of his sweatpants. The witness corrects his earlier story to point out that the suspect was wearing sweatpants.

Even though the witness in this case seemed to contradict himself — first saying he couldn’t remember what the suspect was wearing, then saying he remembered the suspect was wearing sweatpants — that kind of “memory jogging” doesn’t rise to the level of perjury. A good criminal defense attorney, however, will point out inconsistencies in those statements if they are material enough.

But let’s say the witness is a friend of the suspect. He knows the suspect could go away for a long time if he used a weapon during the alleged assault, so he initially testifies that his friend didn’t have a weapon on him the night of the attack. Later, when asked to explain the type of weapon the suspect has access to, the witness says he usually carries a small pocket knife, and he confirms the suspect had the pocket knife on him the night of the attack. When the prosecutor points out the contradiction, the witness said his friend was just defending himself.

Here, a prosecutor might have an easier time proving that the witness committed perjury, because the witness’ earlier statement about the knife is contradicted by his later testimony. There was no “memory jogging” here. He changed his story.

What if it’s just a little, tiny lie? Is that still perjury?

In most cases, yes. Any false statement intentionally made by a person while under oath could be considered perjury. It doesn’t matter if the false statement is material to the issue.

If a person makes a false statement under oath in a criminal case, they can still be charged with perjury, even if the statement didn’t affect the outcome of the case or was a minor detail.

Likewise, if a person knowingly makes a false statement on a legal document or complaint — one signed under penalty of perjury — they can be charged with perjury even if the lie was in a minor detail on the document. For example, if a person knowingly misrepresents their address on a bank loan, that person can be charged with perjury if they sign those documents under penalty of perjury.

Can a person be charged with perjury for recanting a statement given under oath?

That is an excellent question, and the answer is, it depends. Normally, yes, a person can still be charged with perjury if they knowingly make a false statement while under oath, and then have a change of heart later on. The circumstances of what happened, what was said and how the person recanted will determine whether a person has some kind of defense against a potential or actual perjury charge.

When under oath, the best thing to do is to be honest. But mistakes do happen. When they do, it’s best to discuss the circumstances of the situation with an expert criminal defense attorney.

Can a person be charged with perjury if they are given immunity in exchange for testimony in a proceeding?

Yes. Prosecutors typically provide immunity from similar criminal charges in a case if a person agrees to testify (usually against another person), but that immunity doesn’t allow for a person to commit perjury during their testimony. Any deliberate false statements made under oath can open someone up to a perjury charge — and, worse, possibly other criminal charges.

What are the punishments for perjury?

The punishment for perjury varies from state to state.

In California, perjury is considered a felony. A person who is convicted of perjury can earn up to four years in jail, though judges typically take into consideration the person’s history and the circumstances of the case.

A federal perjury conviction can earn a person up to five years in prison and/or a fine, but again, judges often take into consideration the person’s character and the circumstances of the case.

If you’ve been charged, or think you may be charged in the future, with perjury, it’s extremely important you retain a defense attorney. Contact Mark Reichel right now for your free consultation.

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