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Can I be charged for lying about a crime to protect the real criminal?

Can I be Charged for Lying About a Crime to Protect the Real Criminal?

This is a tricky situation that many people find themselves in. You discover a crime has been committed and the police start asking questions. Someone you care about is the real criminal but you want to protect them by lying or omitting facts. Can you get in legal trouble for this? Let’s break it down.

The short answer is yes, you can be charged with a crime even if you lied to protect someone else. Obstructing justice is illegal, period. But there are degrees of charges based on exactly what you did. And there may be ways to defend yourself as well.

Obstruction of Justice Charges

Lying to the police or court about a crime, no matter your reason, can lead to an “obstruction of justice” charge. Obstruction charges can include:

  • Perjury – Lying under oath
  • Filing a false police report
  • Destroying or hiding evidence
  • Trying to convince a witness to lie or not cooperate

These charges are felonies, meaning over a year in prison. The exact penalty depends on what state you’re in and how extensively you obstructed the case. Fines, probation, community service may be handed down instead of jail time for minor instances. But major lies that derail investigations often do lead to prison.

There are also laws against being an “accessory after the fact” – helping someone escape arrest or prosecution for a crime. So if you actively help the real criminal avoid capture after knowing they committed a crime, you could face charges too.

How Far Will Prosecutors Go?

How likely are you to be charged for lying to protect someone? Prosecutors have wide discretion. They may:

  • Decide it’s not worth prosecuting you
  • Offer a plea deal to cooperate against the main criminal
  • Only charge you with a minor crime like obstruction
  • Go after you fully for major felonies

It really depends on the case specifics and how badly they want to convict the real criminal. Many times they will cut deals with accomplices to build the strongest case.

When Lying Becomes a Crime

Not every false statement is illegal. Exactly when dishonesty becomes an actual crime depends on:

  • Your intent – Did you intend to mislead investigators or protect the true criminal? That’s key.
  • Who you lied to – Lying to friends or family won’t get you charged. Police and courts is obstruction.
  • Materiality – Minor lies may not matter. But major deceptions that throw off an investigation are serious.

So if you’re questioned as a witness or suspect, be careful what you say. Even if you’re trying to protect someone, outright lies and destroying evidence could be deemed obstruction.

When Silence May be Better

What should you do if questioned about a crime a loved one committed? You have the right to remain silent under the 5th Amendment. Silence alone generally can’t be used as evidence of guilt. Refusing to answer questions may be wiser than lying.

But beware – falsely denying knowledge of a crime under oath is still perjury. And lying by omission can still be obstruction if you intentionally leave out major facts. Consider:

  • Refusing to answer certain questions
  • Saying you don’t recall, if true
  • Asking for immunity before answering
  • Consulting with a lawyer first

While staying totally silent seems suspicious, it’s likely better than getting caught in a lie later.

When Should You Tell the Truth?

Lying only works for so long – investigators have ways of finding the truth. And charges for obstruction often get stacked onto the original crime. So in many cases, the truth comes out eventually.

The sooner you’re honest, the better. Being upfront from the start, before lying, may help avoid serious charges. And cooperating after lying can still mitigate the damage. While ratting out a friend seems awful, it may be the legal best option.

Defenses Against Obstruction Charges

If accused of obstruction, there are some legal defenses to fight the charges:

  • You lacked criminal intent – the lies weren’t meant to obstruct
  • Your false statements weren’t material enough to the case
  • You corrected the lies in a timely manner
  • You were coerced into lying by threats or force

While these defenses occasionally work, it’s still very risky to lie. Avoiding obstruction altogether is better if possible.

Get Legal Advice Before Talking

If questioned by police, never say anything without consulting a criminal defense lawyer first. Be polite, but say you won’t answer questions without an attorney present. This helps avoid accidentally saying something incriminating.

A lawyer can advise you on the smartest approach – be it silence, cooperation, or defending against charges. They know the process and potential penalties. It’s always wise to have an expert on your side early on.

The Costs of Obstruction Often Outweigh the Benefits

Lying to protect someone seems noble in the moment. But in the long run, obstruction charges may do more harm than good:

  • They can follow you for life, impacting jobs and reputation
  • Serious felonies mean huge fines, even prison time
  • The truth tends to surface anyway, making the lie pointless
  • It enables the real criminal to keep committing crimes

Before rushing to lie or cover up evidence, weigh the lasting effects. And consider talking to a lawyer first about smarter alternatives. They may suggest ways to cooperate that reduce charges for both you and the perpetrator.

While ratting someone out feels awful, it may allow both of you to move on with your lives rather than face serious jail time. There are rarely easy answers when balancing moral duties versus legal ones. But understanding the law can help inform your decisions.

The Takeaway – Tread Carefully When Lying to Protect Someone

Lying for any reason during an investigation is risky and illegal. But showing compassion is natural, even if misguided. If faced with this dilemma:

  • Know obstruction charges are possible even with good intent
  • Staying silent may be wiser than lying outright
  • Consult a lawyer before answering any questions
  • Consider if cooperation deals may help both parties
  • Weigh if a lie now is worth the consequences later

With legal guidance, perhaps there’s a way to help your loved one without destroying your own life in the process. The costs of obstruction often outweigh the benefits. Tread carefully and make informed choices if ever faced with this predicament.


Obstruction of Justice Overview

Obstruction of Justice Charges and Penalties

When Lying Becomes Obstruction of Justice

Lying to Protect Someone – Obstruction Issues

Lying by Omission vs Commission

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