Perjury, or lying under oath, is the crime of telling a lie after giving an oath or affirmation promising to tell the truth to a public official. While many people associate perjury with lying to a judge or jury under oath in court, it can also occur in other situations. These include situations where a person lies to a notary public, a clerk of court, or other public official after they have promised to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
The act of perjury usually has to be intentional (the person has to know they are lying and intend to make false statements). Furthermore, some states have specific requirements that the perjury be “material” to the case at hand.
Perjury can take on many different forms, including
- Oral testimony (such as part of a court proceeding or during a deposition);
- Something you have written; or
- Signing or acknowledging a legal document that you know contains false information (such as an affidavit).
The facts and circumstances that surround the alleged lies are important in determining whether it actually is perjury. There are certain things to keep in mind:
- Only Under Oath: Perjury only happens under oath, which means that the person must have vowed to tell the truth to someone who is authorized to administer the oath, such as a judge, notary public, clerk of court, or other official.];
- Requires a Statement: Silence or refusing to answer a question is not perjury, because the person has not actually said anything. However, refusing to give a statement may give rise to other charges, depending on the jurisdiction.
- Written statements still count, however, so if a person signs or acknowledges a false writing while under oath, they may still face allegations of perjury;
- Intent to Mislead: The person must know that the statement is false and give it with the intent to mislead the court or the officials presiding over the proceeding;
- False Statement: Only intentional false statements count as perjury. If a witness accidentally makes a false statement because they are confused, or are having trouble remembering, these statements do not necessarily constitute perjury. Honest mistakes are not considered perjury, but if you are not certain as to the details, it’s probably better to say so.
Even so, you can also be charged with perjury even if you did not make a false statement under oath. If you try to convince another, you may face charges of suborning perjury.
Suborning perjury is the act of attempting to induce a witness to give false testimony while under oath during a proceeding (whether that’s in court or in a different venue), and the witness actually gives false testimony. There are certain things that have to happen for a charge of suborning perjury to stick:
- The defendant attempted to persuade the witness. A person charged with suborning perjury is guilty only if they tried to convince a witness to lie under oath. This does not necessarily mean that the defendant threatened the witness, although this may be a part of the persuasion;
- The defendant believed that the testimony would be false. The defendant must believe that the testimony they are trying to induce is false. Pushing someone to tell the truth is not suborning perjury, even if the effort to get the witness to tell the truth is particularly forceful;
- The witness did actually lie under oath. This may seem pretty simple, but it’s easy to overlook. In order for someone to be charged with suborning perjury, the act of perjury must occur. This means that the witness must actually lie under oath. If the witness agrees to lie, but is never called to testify and never actually gives the false statement under oath, the defendant is not guilty of suborning perjury. Likewise, if the witness does give a false statement, but is not under oath when they make the statement (for example, talking to the press outside the courthouse), the defendant is probably not guilty of suborning perjury.
Some states classify perjury offenses as a felony, while others treat perjury as a misdemeanor. Depending on where you are, the severity of penalties for perjury can vary. However, some common penalties for perjury include imprisonment and fines. In a few states, perjury can result in a death penalty case if that perjury led to the execution of an innocent person.
Perjury can be a federal offense if it occurs in the course of a federal proceeding, or if a person lies under oath to a person acting on behalf of the federal government. Federal perjury charges can result in up to five years in jail, as well as fines.
If you have been accused of perjury, it is in your best interests to speak to a qualified criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. The right lawyer can help you protect your rights, advise you on the best possible defense for your case, and guide you through the complexities of the legal system. If necessary, your lawyer can also represent you in court.