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Child Custody | Criminal Defense | Divorce | Family

Perjury Under the Law

13 min read
Rachael Goldstein, Attorney

by Rachael Goldstein, Attorney

To put it simply, perjury (pronounced: per-jur-ee) is the crime of lying under oath. When you take an oath in a courtroom or while signing certain legal documents, you affirm that your statements will be truthful. If it’s found later that the information supplied by you was not true, and you knew that the statement wasn’t true, then you may face perjury charges.

Perjury’s definition will vary slightly in wording from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, meaning the exact laws covering perjury can differ somewhat across different states. 

However, regardless of these variations, the crime of perjury is essentially the same no matter where you’re located – making false statements while under oath.

Learning how our legal system works is a vital part of protecting your rights, particularly when it comes to matters as serious as perjury. Perjury is an offense that can carry severe implications in any court proceeding or official investigation. To understand perjury charges, you’ll want to know what constitutes perjury along with its potential impacts and penalties.

Proving Perjury Charges – Five Key Elements

Proving perjury isn’t just as simple as showing that someone was lying. It also involves establishing several key elements. If all of these elements can be proven, you can be convicted of perjury.

For example, under federal law, all of the following elements must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt:

Sworn Oath

The first step in proving perjury is demonstrating that an individual took an oath to provide truthful testimony, or make truthful declarations or certifications. The oath can have taken place verbally or through written means.

False Statement

The next element that must be proven is that during their sworn declaration, the individual made a statement that was untrue.

Knowledge of Falsehood

It’s not enough to simply prove that the individual was lying under oath. It must also be proven that they knew what they were saying was false

Statement was Made Intentionally

Proving perjury also requires evidence that the false statement wasn’t made by mistake or accident. It must be proven that the lie was told deliberately and willfully.

Statement was Material to Proceedings

Finally, it’s essential to demonstrate that the subject matter of the false statement was material to the proceedings where it was stated. This means if a falsehood is about irrelevant details which don’t impact any decision-making in these proceedings, it may not be enough to obtain a perjury conviction. 

Perjury vs. Lying

Both perjury and lying may involve deliberately telling falsehoods, but not every lie qualifies as perjury. The difference lies primarily in the context of these actions.

Perjury is a specific legal term for a particular type of lie – namely, those given under oath or in official written statements during court proceedings or regulatory processes where you’ve sworn to tell the truth. It’s considered serious because it can alter the course of justice being carried out by possibly leading judges and juries to make decisions based on false information.

In contrast, lying is a broader term that encompasses untruthful statements in any situation or setting. Lies can happen casually between friends, at work, on resumes, or essentially whenever someone communicates something they know to be incorrect. 

While dishonesty can also harm relationships and trust, lying isn’t prosecuted legally unless it’s done under oath or within certain other legal contexts where truthfulness is required by law.

For example, lying can be prosecuted under laws related to making false statements to law enforcement officials and obstruction of justice, even if no oath was taken to tell the truth. 

Subornation of Perjury

Subornation of perjury is a serious offense as well. Essentially, it involves persuading or inducing another person to commit perjury.

For example, a witness initially gives an honest account during an interview about an accident case stating that the injured party was jaywalking when they were hit by the defendant’s car. However, the victim’s lawyer tells the witness to instead claim that the accident happened within the crosswalk zone, as this will help the case. The witness testifies to this false version in court.  

The attorney would be guilty of suborning perjury (and the witness would likely be guilty of perjury).

Penalties For Perjury

The penalties associated with a perjury conviction can be quite severe and vary depending on where you are charged. No matter what, this crime is taken very seriously. 

For instance, under federal law, perjury is classified as a felony offense. If convicted, you face substantial fines and a prison sentence of five years.

In contrast to federal law, some states – like New York – sometimes charge perjury as a misdemeanor instead of a felony. If convicted of this Class A misdemeanor offense in New York, you could face penalties including up to one year in jail.

New York can and does charge perjury as a felony instead of a misdemeanor in some situations, though, which carries significant prison time. 

Collateral Consequences of Perjury

Collateral consequences are additional penalties or repercussions beyond the immediate criminal punishments (like fines, imprisonment, and probation). Collateral consequences stem from a criminal conviction and affect your daily life long after any jail time is served or court-imposed sanctions have ended.

In terms of perjury convictions, these consequences often include the following:

Employment Challenges

Employers often conduct background checks on potential employees. With a perjury conviction serving as strong evidence of dishonesty, you might find it significantly harder or even impossible to secure employment. A perjury conviction is particularly challenging for roles requiring trust and integrity, such as finance or law enforcement.

Professional License Revocation

If you’re in a profession that’s regulated by a licensing board or agency, such as medicine, law, teaching, or public service roles, a perjury conviction may lead to your professional license being revoked or suspended. A regulatory body must uphold certain ethics and standards within the profession that require practitioners to be of trusted character.

Credibility Issues in Future Legal Proceedings

Your past perjury conviction may come up in future legal proceedings, particularly if you are testifying as a witness. Your credibility could be seriously questioned based on your history of dishonesty under oath.

Housing Difficulties

A criminal record may complicate finding housing because most landlords conduct criminal background checks before agreeing to rent a property. A perjury offense might make the potential landlord question your reliability and honesty. Additionally, government housing or funding may be unavailable to those with perjury convictions.

Immigration Issues 

If you’re not a U.S citizen and are convicted of perjury in the United States, the repercussions could affect your immigration status as well, potentially leading to deportation or disqualification from the naturalization process. This is because “good character” and truthfulness are key requirements in immigration proceedings.

These collateral consequences of a perjury conviction can profoundly impact various areas of your life for years to follow. Understanding them, and responding with appropriate legal representation, becomes critical while navigating such allegations.

In What Situations Does Perjury Occur?

Perjury can occur in a variety of legal situations, and it’s particularly prevalent within the context of civil cases, criminal cases, and situations involving family court. 

Perjury in Civil Cases

Civil cases revolve around non-criminal disputes between two parties where one is usually seeking monetary damages or specific performance from the other party. This could include anything from personal injury lawsuits to probate issues and contract disputes.

In these settings, perjury most commonly transpires in the following situations:

During Depositions

This is a process where one party’s attorney asks another party or witness questions outside of the courtroom but under oath. If a person knowingly provides false information during this hearing, they can be charged with perjury.

In Written Affidavits or Declarations

These are documents completed by an individual involved in the case and they swear under oath that the statements within them are true. Again, if knowingly false information is included in these written testimonies, it can constitute perjury.

During Trial Testimony 

When a witness, plaintiff, respondent, or victim (or anyone else) takes the stand in court during a trial, they are under oath and must provide truthful statements.  If they lie, it could amount to perjury if all of the elements of the crime are met.

The impact of perjury on civil case outcomes can be quite profound. Perjury can sway verdicts leading to significant monetary payouts as a result. This jeopardizes fairness which is integral in these cases.

Perjury in Criminal Cases

Criminal cases involve charges brought by the government against individuals or entities accused of committing a crime. The severity can range from minor offenses like traffic violations to severe crimes such as murder, rape, or drug trafficking.

Here are scenarios where perjury may take place in criminal cases:

Defendants Lying on the Stand

If an individual who is being prosecuted decides to give testimony in their own defense and knowingly lies under oath when doing so, they could also face a separate charge for perjury on top of the original charges.

Witnesses Falsely Testifying

Witnesses play a crucial role in criminal cases, providing essential information under oath that can dramatically impact the trial’s outcome. If witnesses deliberately provide false testimony – whether it’s to protect or harm the defendant – they may face perjury charges.

During Pre-Trial Hearings  

Before a full-blown trial takes place, there might be several pre-trial hearings where individuals are called to testify under oath. Knowingly presenting false testimony during these proceedings, whether verbal or written, can also qualify as perjury.

Even Victims of Crimes Can Commit Perjury 

It’s important to understand that even a victim of a crime can commit perjury. Sometimes, victims might feel compelled to exaggerate events or circumstances in the belief that their truths won’t be enough for a conviction. However, deliberately offering untruthful details is ultimately illegal and punishable under the law. 

The implications of perjury in the criminal justice system are serious. It can cause harm to every person involved in the legal proceedings, and can seriously undermine the integrity of the criminal justice system altogether, leading an innocent person to be convicted or a guilty party to go free.

Perjury in Family Court

Family court is a specialized section of the judicial system dedicated to handling legal matters related to familial relationships, including divorces, child custody battles, child and spousal support issues, adoptions, and domestic violence cases.

In family courts – just like any other courts – perjury constitutes knowingly making false statements under oath. This could occur in paperwork filed with the court or verbal statements made during hearings.

Here are some typical instances where individuals may commit perjury in family court:

Child Custody Hearings

One party may lie about their living conditions, personal behavior, or the other parent’s fitness in order to secure a favorable custody agreement.

Financial Disclosures

Honest financial disclosures are critical during cases determining alimony and child support. Someone might knowingly provide false information – like omitting some of their assets – hoping to affect these potential payments.

Accusations of Misconduct

There could be instances where parties might lie about acts of domestic abuse, misconduct, or neglect either to secure protection orders or tilt a case in their favor.

Divorce Proceedings

During divorce proceedings, one party may lie about any number of matters, including the reasons for seeking a divorce or actions that took place during the marriage.

Perjury in family court doesn’t only lead to potential criminal prosecution but might significantly impact case outcomes like custody agreements and amounts awarded as alimony or child support.

Perjury Traps

A “perjury trap” is a term often used in legal circles referring to a situation where investigators or prosecutors invite someone to give testimony – not necessarily for information gathering – specifically with the hope of catching them in a lie that can be prosecuted as perjury.

The questions might be intentionally designed or phrased in ways that the investigated individual might misinterpret, get confused by, fail to remember exact details of, or yield fundamentally different answers upon being repeated – thereby falling into committing perjury (though all elements of perjury must be met, and it has to be intentional on the part of the person testifying).

Perjury traps are also common when the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of another crime has passed. If the person suspected of committing the crime perjures themselves, they can then be prosecuted for perjury.

Even though you might feel intimidated or pressured during questioning, the most straightforward approach to avoid falling into a perjury trap is by being truthful at all times. This means simply saying “I don’t know” if you’re confused by the question or unsure of the answer, or exercising your Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.

Can Someone Be Sued for Lying Under Oath?

In the United States, a person is generally immune from being sued for statements they make under oath during testimony in court. Even if a person was negatively impacted by another party’s perjury – financially or otherwise – the harmed party cannot sue the other person for civil damages related to the false testimony.

This immunity exists to foster an environment where people are willing and able to give free and truthful testimony without fear of subsequent legal ramifications. However, as stated previously, providing false testimony can still lead to perjury charges – a distinct criminal offense.

There may be exceptions, so always speak with a lawyer to make this determination. 

Statute of Limitations for Perjury Charges

The statute of limitations refers to the legal time limit within which authorities must begin criminal prosecution (or the deadline by which a civil case must be filed). If this timeline expires before charges are filed, the opportunity is forfeited and a person can no longer be arrested and charged with the crime (unless specific exceptions apply).

In terms of perjury, there is no universal statute across jurisdictions, as each has its own specific limits depending upon state laws. Generally though, it ranges from 2 to 7 years after committing perjury.

Federal perjury charges must typically be initiated within 5 years from when the alleged act of perjury was committed.

Perjury as a Professional

For individuals in certain professional sectors like law enforcement or the legal system, perjury’s implications can be career-ending. Here’s how it could impact those in two significant fields:

As a Lawyer

Perjury poses stark challenges to the legal profession’s expectation of ethics and integrity. Lawyers found guilty of perjuring themselves can face suspension or even lose their ability to practice law. They might also face fines or jail time depending on jurisdictional laws.

As a Police Officer

Law enforcement officers are expected to uphold justice while testifying under oath. If they commit perjury when presenting evidence compiled by them – perhaps by exaggerating circumstances that led up to an arrest or creating false details altogether – this undermines justice, creates strategic opportunities for defense lawyers, and puts police officers at risk of facing disciplinary actions including termination and criminal prosecution.

Understanding perjury is crucial in maintaining the integrity of any judicial process – whether you are a witness, plaintiff, lawyer, victim, defendant, or anyone else involved in the process. Ensuring truthfulness while under oath not only upholds justice but also helps you to avoid serious legal repercussions. If you’re ever unsure about an aspect related to perjury or any other legal matters, do not hesitate to reach out for professional advice from an attorney.

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