Many fans of dramas depicting courtroom proceedings are familiar with the question, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” If you have sworn any version of a legally binding oath, then intentionally lied, you could be found guilty of perjury.
What Is Perjury?
Perjury, or providing false information while under oath, is a crime with potentially serious ramifications. A conviction is a felony punishable by probation, fines and up to four years in jail or prison.
This criminal offense applies to testimony in court or during civil depositions, statements made in sworn affidavits and declarations, facts submitted in driver’s license applications and information in official certificates.
To successfully convict someone of perjury, the following five elements must be present:
- The defendant took an oath or otherwise made a statement under penalty of perjury.
- The defendant specifically affirmed the information they gave was true, despite knowing it to be false.
- The defendant’s statement or testimony is “material,” which means it might influence the outcome of the proceedings.
- The defendant knowingly made a false statement while under oath or under penalty of perjury.
- The defendant intended to testify or declare falsely while under oath.
What Constitutes Perjury, and What Does Not?
Imagine a scenario in which someone is applying for a California driver’s license. He is wanted for a crime in a different state and doesn’t want to get caught, so he writes down an incorrect date of birth when filling out the form. The application has a paragraph explicitly stating that people are under penalty of perjury for providing inaccurate information. According to California Penal Code Section 118, this person could be found guilty of perjury.
On the other hand, in the same scenario, someone who believes they are overweight and states on their driver’s license application that they are 10 pounds lighter might not be guilty of perjury if their weight is an immaterial fact.
Defenses Against Perjury
Legal challenges to perjury charges may include demonstrating that:
- A defendant made a statement that they mistakenly believed was true at the time.
- Any lie or mischaracterization of facts was unintentional.
- The false statement’s subject matter was irrelevant to the case at hand.
- The person making the statement was not under oath at the time.
Additionally, if someone who makes a false statement later goes back and tries to set the record straight, that attempt may demonstrate they did not intend to testify falsely and therefore are not guilty of committing perjury.
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