Perjury could be generally defined as lying related to a judicial proceeding. If you are discovered to be lying to the court, it could not just harm your chances at trial, but it is also a criminal offense in Massachusetts.
What is Perjury?
For the prosecution to prove perjury, they have to show that the defendant was lawfully required to tell the truth relating to a judicial proceeding, or required to take an oath or affirmation, and:
willfully and intentionally;
made a false statement or affirmation;
material to the matter in question.
Is Perjury Different Than Lying?
Perjury is more than just lying. Perjury is lying to the court, and considered a crime against public justice. Generally lying is not a crime, lying is part of everyday life for some people, and for the most part is considered protected free speech. However, providing a false statement on an official document, lying under oath, or lying to law enforcement officers can carry penalties.
What Judicial Proceedings are Subject to Perjury?
It is not only in the courtroom, or in giving testimony before a grand jury that a person can be charged with perjury. Depositions taken under oath in civil court matters are also subject to perjury.
Perjury in Writing
A false written statement can also be considered perjury, if it contains a declaration that is is made "under penalty of perjury." If a written statement contains willfully false material statements, the signer can be guilty of perjury.
Subornation of Perjury
Persuading someone else to commit perjury is punished as perjury. Even attempting to persuade someone to commit perjury is punishable by up to five (5) years in prison.
How is Perjury Proven?
Perjury can be established by proof that a defendant, while under oath, made irreconcilably contradictory declarations material to the point in question. If some material statements given under oath contradict each other, then perjury is demonstrated.
Can You Retract a Perjured Statement?
Often times, a declaration that constitutes perjury can be corrected. If the person making the declaration admits to the false declaration, they will not be prosecuted for perjury, so long as:
the declaration has not substantially affected the proceeding, or
the falsity has not yet been exposed, and not clear that it will be exposed.
If at the time the person made a false declaration, they believed their statement to be true, this is a defense to a perjury charge. Or, if the false declaration was the result of a good faith mistake or error, this is also a defense.
What are the Penalties for Perjury?
Perjury is a criminal offense under both Massachusetts and federal law. Penalties for perjury will depend on the underlying criminal trial. Most charges for perjury are punishable by imprisonment for up to twenty (20) years, and a fine of up to $1,000. However, perjury in relation to a capital case can carry a potential life sentence.
How to Avoid Being Charged for Perjury?
Not making a false or inconsistent statement in a judicial proceeding may be the easiest way to avoid charges for perjury. In some cases, saying nothing may be the safest option. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can best advise you on when it is your best interest to cooperate, and when it may be in your best interest to claim the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
Perjury in Civil Court Cases
Perjury can also be charged in civil cases. A skilled attorney can challenge perjured statements and testimony through cross-examination, or through a motion to strike.
Testifying Before an Investigation
Even testifying during an investigation where you are not being charged may expose you to perjury charges. It is advisable to contact an attorney before being questioned by corporate of government investigators. Deciding how much to cooperate can be a critical decision, which could help resolve the situation or further expose you to criminal and civil liability.
Lawyer Correcting Perjury
Just like anyone else, lawyers cannot make false statements before the court. However, their Rules of Professional Conduct further require them to "take reasonable remedial measures," if their client gives material false statements that the lawyer knows is false.
This generally means that a lawyer will try to keep their client from committing perjury, and question the client so as to avoid allowing a perjured statement.
Defenses to Perjury
As above, timely correcting a false statement may bar prosecution. Additionally, a defense to perjury is if the statement was made as a good faith mistake or error. Understanding when to exercise the Fifth Amendment privilege can further protect against false or inconsistent statements.
An attorney experienced in defending clients before criminal proceedings and investigations will be able to clarify the issues facing a client. If charged with perjury, a skilled lawyer can identify the elements required for the prosecution to prove their case, and defend their client in court.
At Dhar Law, LLP, our committed attorneys have years of experience representing clients charged with perjury and other criminal charges. If you are facing charges or an investigation, or have any questions about perjury, please contact our offices.