Juries and judges often base verdicts and other important decisions on sworn testimony and signed documents. If you've served on a jury, you've heard the court ask a witness taking the stand: "Do you swear or affirm that the statements you will make are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"
Statements given under oath and certain legal documents carry an expectation of truthfulness. 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. Yet, those who knowingly mislead a court may face serious criminal charges of perjury.
This article provides a general overview of the crime of perjury. It provides examples of and possible defenses to the offense. It also reviews federal and state perjury statutes.
What Is Perjury?
To “perjure oneself" is to make false statements under oath knowingly. Or it is to sign a legal document known to be false or to contain false statements. The false statement must also be related to a material fact. That is, it can affect the course or outcome of the proceeding.
The seriousness of perjury charges derives from its attack on the truth. The foundation of the legal system depends on trust and credibility. After all, one sworn statement has the power to tip the scales of justice and alter a person's life.
Perjury qualifies as a crime against justice. Lying under oath compromises the work of an official proceeding. It challenges the authority of courts, grand juries, governing bodies, and public officials throughout government and the legal system. Other crimes against justice include criminal contempt of court, probation violation, and tampering with evidence.
Examples of Perjury
There are many ways a person could perjure themselves. In its simplest form, a person commits the crime either in statements made under oath or signed documents. Here are some examples:
- While completing a sworn affidavit during a bankruptcy court proceeding, John intentionally understates his monthly income by $2,000. John knows he has underreported the income. He signs the printed document and files it with the judge's clerk.
- Mary is a suspect facing criminal charges. Jill is sworn in and testifies in the criminal case trial. She states that her friend, Mary, was having lunch at her house when the crime occurred. Credit card receipts and mobile phone records say otherwise. The alibi claim is central to Mary's defense.
- Frank omits the $15,000 he won at a casino from his federal income tax return. It's not a mistake. Frank intends to hide his winnings. He signs and sends the return to the IRS.
In all these examples, evidence of the crime of perjury comes to light when testimony or signed statements directly conflict with verifiable information. For example, authorities may investigate John's conduct, which understated his monthly income in bankruptcy court. When his employer's payroll records show a higher income, he may face perjury charges. The state will claim he provided false information on a sworn statement.
Since witnesses and others involved in legal proceedings may unintentionally provide false testimony in good faith, prosecutors must proceed with caution. They 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. Yet, 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 lying about key facts, she has not committed perjury. Her hazy memory of the incident should not become the basis of a criminal offense.
Federal and State Perjury Law and Penalties
Perjury cases can go forward in federal or state courts. As with all crimes, to obtain a conviction, the state must prove each and every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Under federal law (18 USC § 1621), for example, the elements of the crime of perjury include:
- Having taken an oath before any competent tribunal (court), officer, or person;
- In any case where U.S. law authorizes an oath for truthful testimony, declaration, deposition, or certification;
- Willfully and contrary to such oath;
- States or subscribes to any material matter which they do not believe to be true
Federal law also outlaws the subornation of perjury, or the procuring of perjury by another person. The penalty for a federal perjury crime includes fines and imprisonment for up to five years. Judges have the discretion to use leniency (including probation instead of prison) when proper.
Most state laws have provisions that mirror federal law. The New York state penal code provides for various degrees of perjury crimes and criminal offenses for making apparently false statements. At the lower end, perjury in the third-degree is a class A misdemeanor offense. This crime involves making a false statement while giving testimony under oath or in a subscribed written instrument when under oath. The crime rises to a felony offense of perjury in the second degree when:
- The statement is material;
- Made in a subscribed written instrument; and
- Made to mislead a public official in his official functions
The offense can become a felony charge of perjury in the first degree when the false statement is material and occurs during testimony.
Under Ohio law, perjury occurs when, in any official proceeding, a person knowingly makes a false statement while under oath or affirmation. The falsity must involve material statements. The statute also includes situations where someone knowingly swears or affirms a false statement made previously. The offense is a third-degree felony. Punishment can range from nine to 36 months in state prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000.
Ohio's statute states that a person cannot claim they did not believe the false statement to be material. The law also applies even when there is a showing of some irregularity in the oath taken. If a person made two contradictory statements, the state does not have to prove which one is false. It must convince the jury that one of the statements is false. Yet, the state cannot obtain a perjury conviction only upon one testifying witness's statement contradicting the defendant's testimony.
Perjury is rarely charged, and it is difficult for prosecutors to prove. The threat of perjury charges is often a tool lawyers use to ensure that witnesses provide candid testimony to the court.
A conviction can cost someone 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.
Legal Defenses Associated With Perjury Cases
As the defendant's intent is key to proving perjury, the state looks for strong evidence to corroborate an intent to mislead or provide false information. Legal defenses to perjury charges likewise seek to raise questions on the issue of intent. They may include any of the following:
- A belief that the statement was true even though the defendant was mistaken
- Evidence that the defendant misunderstood the question put to him
- Claims that the false statement did not address a material fact
- The defendant made a prompt recantation of the false statement
A defendant's non-responsive answers will likely not support a perjury conviction. In a case where a business owner's response to a question about his personal accounts provided a truthful (although non-responsive) statement about his business accounts, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the perjury law should not be "loosely construed." In Bronston v. U.S. (1973), the Court warned that "precise questioning is imperative as a predicate for the offense of perjury." The Court overturned a jury's conviction for perjury where the defendant provided a literally truthful statement about his company while not directly answering the question about his own accounts.
Have More Questions About Perjury? Talk to an Attorney
Perjury is a very serious crime against the integrity of the justice system. If you have been charged with the crime or have additional questions, consider seeking legal advice. You can contact a criminal defense attorney to discuss your situation.