Nothing But the Truth: What Happens When You Lie Under Oath
Juries and judges often base their verdicts, sentences, or other important decisions on sworn testimony and signed documents. Statements given under oath and certain legal documents are presumed to be truthful, or at least made in good faith. But how do we know for sure that witnesses and other parties involved in a legal matter are telling the truth? We can’t always be certain, but those who are caught knowingly misleading a court face serious criminal charges of perjury.
To “perjure” yourself is to knowingly make misleading or false statements under oath or to sign a legal document you know to be false or misleading. This crime is taken very seriously because the foundation of the legal system depends on trust and credibility. After all, just one sworn statement has the power to tip the scales of justice and dramatically alter someone’s life.
Perjury is considered a crime against justice, since lying under oath compromises the authority of courts, grand juries, governing bodies, and public officials. Other crimes against justice include criminal contempt of court, probation violation, and tampering with evidence.
Examples of Perjury
There are a number of different ways you could perjure yourself, but the crime is committed either in statements made under oath or in signed documents. Here are some examples:
- While completing a sworn affidavit during child support proceedings in family court, John intentionally understates his monthly income by $2,000, signs the printed document, and files it with the judge’s clerk.
- Jill is sworn in and testifies at trial that her friend, Mary, was having lunch at her house when the crime with which Mary was charged occurred. However, credit card receipts and mobile phone records indicate otherwise.
- Frank intentionally omits $15,000 he won at a casino from his federal income tax return, which he signs and sends to the IRS.
In all of these examples, evidence of the crime typically comes to light when testimony or signed statements directly conflict with verifiable information. The man who understated his monthly income, for example, likely would be caught by authorities when his employer’s payroll records indicate a higher income.
Since witnesses and others involved in legal proceedings may unintentionally provide false testimony in good faith, prosecutors must be able to prove the intent to deceive or mislead. For example, a witness to a robbery testifies that the suspect had green eyes and a scar on his left cheek, but other evidence points to a suspect with blue eyes and a scar on his right cheek. Unless prosecutors can prove that the witness was trying to protect the assailant by knowingly lying about key facts, she hasn't perjured herself just because her memory of the incident is hazy.
State and federal penalties for perjury include fines and/or prison terms upon conviction. Federal law (18 USC § 1621), for example, states that anyone found guilty of the crime will be fined or imprisoned for up to five years. Most state laws have similar provisions, but judges typically have discretion to use leniency (including probation in lieu of a prison sentence) where appropriate.
And if you're convicted, you may even lose your livelihood. If you work in a profession where truthfulness is valued, such as the legal profession, law enforcement, and some public service jobs, you could lose your professional license.
Perjury is rarely charged and it's hard to prove. However, the threat of perjury is often a tool prosecutors use to ensure that witnesses provide candid testimony and to garner convictions.
Have More Questions About Perjury? Talk to an Attorney
Perjury is considered a very serious crime against the integrity of the justice system. If you've been charged with the crime or have additional questions, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney to discuss your situation.