What is Perjury and What are the Penalties?

“I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” – a mantra recited dozens of times a week in TV shows and movies. It’s so familiar that its significance can be overlooked. But, when sworn in a court or other official proceeding, it makes everything said afterward either the truth or perjury.

What Is Perjury?

A witness under oath commits perjury by making a statement in a court or other proceeding that the witness knows is not true. The statement must be “material” to the subject of the proceeding, meaning that it must have some relationship to the lawsuit, investigation, or inquiry of the proceeding. Let’s break this down for better understanding:

Perjury only happens under oath. The witness must have vowed to tell the truth to someone who is authorized to administer the oath, such as a judge, notary public, or another official. And, the proceeding must be “competent,” that is, authorized by law. For example, a grand jury that has launched an investigation that is beyond its powers is not a competent proceeding.

Perjury requires a statement. Silence or a refusal to give a statement is not perjury (but may lead to other charges). In addition to testimony, a statement adopted in the proceeding, as when a witness authenticates a false writing while under oath, is also perjury.

Intent to mislead. The witness must know that the testimony is false and must give it with the intent to mislead the court.

Only false statements are perjury. False testimony that results from confusion, lapse of memory, or mistake is not perjury. Conflicts in testimony may be perjury if one of the conflicting statements is necessarily false (and prosecutors can prove perjury without proving which one is false).

Only a “material” statement can be perjury. The false statement must be capable of influencing the proceeding – that is, it must have a relationship to the subject of the proceeding. This includes a false statement that would tend to mislead or hamper an investigation. This means that a lie, even under oath, about a subject that is not material to the proceeding is not perjury. For example, falsely bragging that “I never update my Facebook page at work,” while testifying in a case having nothing to do with social networking at work, would not be a likely candidate for a perjury charge.

How is Perjury Punished?

A person convicted of perjury under federal law may face up to five years in prison and fines. The punishment for perjury under state law varies from state to state, but perjury is a felony and carries a possible prison sentence of at least one year, plus fines and probation. Penalties are increased in relation to how much the perjury interfered with the proceeding. When the perjurer was a witness in his own criminal trial, his sentence for the underlying conviction may also be increased, on the grounds that a lying defendant is one who has a bad character and is not likely to be rehabilitated quickly.

Judges can punish a perjurer who lied under oath to hide or assist a crime in a way that goes beyond the sentence for perjury. That defendant may also be charged as an accessory to the crime he was attempting to hide or assist if that charge will carry a greater sentence. And a perjurer may even be charged as an accessory to a crime of which he is convicted if he lied to conceal that crime.

There is no civil remedy for a criminal defendant wrongly convicted based on another’s perjury, nor for a party to a civil lawsuit who loses because of a witness’s perjury.

As you can see, perjury is a complex crime and can arise in many situations. As with all serious legal problems, be sure to consult a lawyer experienced in criminal law if you have questions about perjury or find yourself investigated for the crime or charged with it.

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