29 Nov 23

How Serious is Perjury Under Federal Law?

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Last Updated on: 15th December 2023, 01:30 pm

How Serious is Perjury Under Federal Law?

Perjury—lying under oath—seems like a pretty serious crime. But how serious is it really under federal law? What exactly can happen if you commit perjury? Well, let’s take a look…

What is Perjury?

First things first: what exactly is perjury? Basically, perjury is when you intentionally lie or make false statements while under oath in an official legal proceeding like a trial, hearing, deposition, etc. You’re usually considered “under oath” when you’ve sworn to tell the truth with your hand on a Bible or similar religious text.

So if you’re under oath and say something false on purpose, that’s perjury. If you just make a mistake or get something wrong by accident, it’s not perjury. It has to be an intentional lie about something important to the case.

What’s the Punishment for Perjury?

Under 18 U.S. Code § 1621, the main federal perjury law, perjury is a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison, a fine, or both. So right off the bat, up to 5 years behind bars definitely makes perjury pretty serious!

If the perjury relates to the commission of a capital crime like murder, the maximum prison sentence goes up to life imprisonment or even the death penalty. But those situations are rare.

Other Consequences

Aside from fines and possible prison time, a federal perjury conviction can screw up your life in other ways:

  • You’ll have a felony criminal record that can make things like getting a job more difficult
  • You may lose certain civil rights like voting and gun ownership
  • You could be barred from holding public office or other positions of public trust
  • You’ll almost certainly lose all credibility as a witness in legal proceedings

And keep in mind a perjury conviction itself can be used against you in future cases to attack your credibility. So it can be a big deal even beyond the direct punishment.

What About Lying to Congress?

You may have heard about accusations of perjury against public officials like Roger Stone and Hillary Clinton for lying to Congress. Is that less serious than “regular” perjury?

Nope! Under 18 U.S. Code § 1001, you can get up to 5 years in prison for knowingly lying or concealing information from Congress while under oath, just like with regular perjury.

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In fact, some legal experts argue lying to Congress should be seen as more serious because it undermines our democratic institutions. But legally speaking, it’s punished the same as regular perjury in most cases.

What Defenses Are There?

Let’s say you’ve been accused of perjury. Are there any defenses you can raise to fight the charges? There are a few common defenses used in perjury cases:

Lack of Intent

As mentioned earlier, perjury requires you to intentionally lie while under oath. If your false statement was just a mistake or you got confused, that could defeat the intent requirement.

So one defense is arguing you didn’t actually intend to mislead anyone, your false statement was accidental. But this can be hard to prove if the lie seems like an obvious, bald-faced one.

Statement Not Material

Perjury usually only applies to false statements that are “material” (important) to the legal proceeding. So you could argue your lie was about some minor or trivial detail that didn’t really matter.

But courts have generally interpreted “materiality” pretty broadly here. As long as your statement could have some influence or relationship to the case, that’s usually enough.


Some states say it’s not perjury if you retract (take back) the false statement in the same proceeding. But federal law has no retraction defense – once you say it under oath, you can’t take it back!

That said, if you correct your false statement quickly, prosecutors may choose not to charge you even if technically it could be perjury. But you can’t rely on being allowed to “take backsies” like a kid on a schoolyard.

I Was Confused/Misunderstood

You could also argue there was simply a misunderstanding or you were confused about what you were being asked, so your answer wasn’t intentionally false. If you can show your statement was somehow ambiguous or confusing but not actually a lie, that may fly.

But just claiming “I didn’t understand the question” after giving a clear false answer probably won’t get you off the hook.

Bottom Line

When all is said and done, perjury under federal law is a felony with up to 5 years behind bars, plus fines and serious collateral consequences. There are defenses, but they can be hard to prove.

So while Hollywood sometimes treats perjury like no big deal, legally speaking it’s very much a big deal and super serious crime! Lying under oath is playing with fire that can burn down your entire life.

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The moral here is: don’t commit perjury! Always tell the whole truth when you’re under oath or dealing with the feds. ‘Cause they do not play around with lying!