Nothing But the Truth: What Happens When Someone Lies 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 can anyone know for sure that witnesses and other parties involved in a legal matter are telling the truth? It is not always possible to be certain, but those who are caught knowingly misleading a court face serious criminal charges of perjury.
This article provides a general overview of perjury.
What is Perjury?
To “perjure oneself" is to knowingly make misleading or false statements under oath or to sign a legal document known 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 a person'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 a person could perjure themselves, 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 bankruptcy proceedings, 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 the $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, could be investigated and charged 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. If the witness was not trying to protect the assailant by knowingly lying about key facts, she has not committed perjury simply because her memory of the incident is hazy.
Penalties for Perjury
State and federal penalties for perjury include fines and 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 the discretion to use leniency (including probation in lieu of a prison sentence) where appropriate.
A convicted person may even lose their livelihood. Anyone who works in a profession where truthfulness is valued, such as the legal profession, law enforcement, and certain public service jobs, might face dismissal. Others who work in regulated industries might lose their professional licenses and see their careers come to an end.
Perjury is rarely charged, and it is difficult for prosecutors to prove. However, the threat of perjury charges is often a tool lawyers use to ensure that witnesses provide candid testimony to the court.
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 have been charged with the crime or have additional questions, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney to discuss your situation.