Criminal Law

The Truth About Perjury

You may have heard of someone being convicted of perjury in TV dramas and movies. A person "perjures" themselves, thereby creating legal trouble for themselves and often for others. Perjury is often associated with a witness who has been accused of lying to or misleading court officials. It is a crime that can carry a significant sentence. It's important to understand what perjury is and the consequences before you testify under oath in any type of proceeding.

What Is Perjury?

Perjury is a serious criminal offense that occurs when someone, under oath, knowingly makes a false statement during a court case or other legal proceeding. However, several criteria must be met in order for the court to consider a witness guilty of perjury.

Only witnesses who make false statements under oath can be convicted of perjury, and the witness must also have intentionally misled the court. If you give a false statement but you are not under oath or make false claims without knowledge or malice, your statement will likely not reach the level of perjury charges.

The federal crime of perjury is defined in the U.S. Code at 18 USC 1621. According to that law, a person perjures themselves if:

  • They have taken an oath before a competent tribunal, officer, or person.
  • In any case in which a law of the United States authorizes an oath to be administered
  • They will testify, declare, depose, or certify truly, or that any written testimony, declaration, deposition, or certificate by him subscribed, is true.
  • They willfully and contrary to such oath state or subscribe to any material matter which they do not believe to be true.

Further, the false statement must be materially relevant to the initial case in question to be considered perjurious. This means if you've made an incorrect claim, it must be capable of influencing the case at hand for you to be prosecuted for perjury. For example, a bystander lying about how many cats he owns while testifying to an armed robbery to which he was a witness would not be guilty of perjury.

What Is the Penalty for Perjury?

A perjury charge can result in a prison term of up to five years under federal law. You could also face fines and probation, depending on the context and the severity of the crime.

Given that perjury is often classified as a felony, state laws can be quite harsh as well. Under state law, perjurers might also be punished with a prison sentence of one year or greater, with fines and probation possible as well.

How to Prove Perjury

Perjury can only be proven by providing substantive evidence which contradicts the sworn statement made by a witness while under oath.

False testimony provided by a witness in service of either the prosecution or the defense is eligible material for perjury charges. If the evidence is brought against a witness accused of intentionally misleading the court, a perjury case is likely.

Possible Perjury Defense

If you're facing perjury charges, you should consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Perjury is a felony and a conviction is a serious matter.

Legal counsel can advise whether you can defend yourself against the charge if you tell the truth. Additionally, if the case in which potentially perjurious statements is ongoing, your lawyer can determine whether or not recanting (or correcting) previous statements might be your best option.

What Is a Perjury Trap?

A criminal defense attorney can also protect you from "perjury traps." A perjury trap is a situation in which prosecutors target witnesses (or defendants) by placing them under oath hoping they will choose or be forced to lie to the court.