Lying Under Oath: Can It Send You To Prison?
Published February 13, 2020 / Updated August 13, 2021
As per 18 U.S.C. Section 1621, anyone who has taken an oath in a situation in which oaths can be administered, shall tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This means that lying under oath and making declarations that they do not believe to be true can lead to a perjury charge which is punishable under both state and federal laws.
What is Perjury?
Perjury is when a person provides false witness or information while under oath. It’s considered a crime against justice because it compromises the integrity of the judicial system. In other words, it’s a serious crime that is tantamount to obstruction of justice. It not only keeps the judges and juries from finding out the truth, but it can also put an innocent person in jail.
While anyone can be guilty of lying under oath, it can be hard to prove that someone is committing perjury. As mentioned, perjury happens when someone willingly lies in court. If they are only telling what they know to be the truth, there is no perjury committed – even if it’s not the actual truth. Thus only very few people are found guilty of perjury in the US each year.
This is especially true for sex crimes. In many sexual assault and rape cases, the only witnesses are the victims themselves. Without anyone corroborating their statements, it can be hard to prove whether they’re lying or not. Thus, the law provides for certain elements to be present before one can be charged with perjury.
When Can You Be Charged With Perjury?
According to federal criminal law, you can only be charged with perjury if the following elements are present:
1. You are under oath.
Providing statements, whether true or not, if you have not sworn to tell the truth to someone who is authorized to administer the oaths or affirmations, then it is not perjury.
2. You made a statement.
Refusal to provide a statement and practicing your right to remain silent is not perjury. But if you gave written or verbal false statements under oath, then you are committing perjury.
3. You have an intent to mislead.
Providing false testimony is not enough to be convicted of perjury. It must be given with an intent to mislead the court.
4. You know you’re providing false statements.
This is the part where it is difficult to tell if someone is committing perjury. A person may falsely testify due to a mistake, confusion, or lapse of memory. In those instances, they’re not technically lying so it can’t be considered perjury.
5. Your statements are inconsistent.
The juries will view a person’s testimony as a whole. Thus, you can be charged with perjury if your statements contradict each other.
6. You gave the statement in official proceedings.
You can only be charged with perjury if you provided verbal and written testimonies during official proceedings, such as in a federal court. False information given outside of it is not considered perjury.
7. Your statement plays a significant role in the jury’s decision.
Superfluous false statements, even under oath, is not perjury. Only lies that would tend to mislead or derail the investigation constitute perjury.
Penalties For Perjury
As mentioned, both state and federal laws contain perjury statutes. But in general, perjury is a felony that carries a prison sentence of at least one year on top of fines and probation.
As a federal crime, perjury is punishable by imprisonment of no more than five years, a fine of not more than $250,000, or both. The fine can even go up to $500,000 if the defendant is an organization. In cases where the defendant is also convicted of crimes other than perjury, the perjury conviction will often serve as a basis for enhancing his/her sentence.
Although perjury law varies per state, most states punish those people lying under oath with imprisonment of at least a year, fines, and probation. In California, for example, perjury can send you to prison for four years at most. While in Florida, you can expect up to five years of prison and probation along with a $5,000 fine.
The Perjury Trap
Though perjury can be difficult to prove, some prosecutors will deliberately use grand juries to secure a false statement from the defendant. This is what they call a “perjury trap” and it’s more common than you might think.
For instance, the prosecutors know that a certain famous person committed the crime. But they didn’t have enough evidence to secure a conviction. Since the person is famous and public opinion is against him, many people want a conviction. Due to the lack of evidence, the prosecutors seek to have a perjury conviction instead. They deliberately frame the questions so that the defendant will give out a statement that can easily be refuted by available evidence.
If you think you’ve fallen prey to a perjury trap, you can appeal the judges’ decision. But you need to prove that the false testimony was illegally procured by the government. Though like perjury, proving a perjury trap is very difficult. Thus, it’s very rarely successfully used as a defense.
While most people think that perjury is not that complex, it’s a serious crime that can lead to incarceration. The best thing to do if you are charged with perjury is to consult a criminal defense lawyer.
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