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What is the Difference Between Perjury and False Statements?

What is the Difference Between Perjury and False Statements?

Perjury and false statements are both crimes that involve lying, but there are some key differences between them. Perjury specifically refers to lying while under oath, usually during some kind of legal proceeding like a trial or deposition. False statements, on the other hand, don’t require being under oath – they just refer to lying to the government in general.

Here are some of the main differences between perjury and false statements:

  • Perjury requires being under oath, false statements don’t
  • Perjury requires knowing the statement is false, false statements only require acting in reckless disregard of the truth
  • The penalties for perjury can be higher than for false statements
  • Perjury requires the lie to be relevant to the legal proceeding, false statements don’t have a relevance requirement

What is Perjury?

Perjury refers specifically to lying while under oath during an official proceeding like a congressional hearing, trial, deposition, or in certain documents like affidavits and financial statements [1]. So testifying falsely during a trial would be perjury, but lying to your friend would not. Perjury is a very serious crime that undermines the integrity of the legal system.

The federal perjury statute can be found at 18 U.S. Code § 1621. To be guilty of perjury, a person must [2]:

  1. Knowingly make a false statement
  2. The false statement must be under oath
  3. The false statement must be material or relevant to the proceedings

So for perjury, the lie has to actually matter. Lying about minor details unrelated to the case generally doesn’t qualify. Perjury also requires that the person knows they are lying – simply misremembering facts or being incorrect does not meet the standards for perjury.

If convicted of perjury, a person can face fines and up to 5 years in prison [3]. The potential prison sentence goes up to 8 years if the perjury relates to terrorism.

What are False Statements?

False statements, also known as “false declarations,” refers to the broader crime of lying or concealing material facts from the federal government. The false statements statute can be found at 18 U.S. Code § 1001 [4].

False statements don’t require being under oath like perjury does. Simply lying or concealing information from the federal government, even in casual conversation, could qualify as a false statement. Some examples include [5]:

  • Lying on any federal form or document
  • Lying to federal investigators or law enforcement
  • Lying to Congress
  • Lying to federal agencies and officials

To violate the false statements statute, a person must [4]:

  1. Knowingly and willfully
  2. Make a materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement
  3. In a matter within the jurisdiction of the federal government

The main difference here compared to perjury is there is no oath requirement. But false statements do require that the lie is material – meaning it has to be related to or influence the matter at issue. Simply telling an unimportant lie to a federal agent likely doesn’t qualify.

False statements have a lower intent requirement than perjury. For perjury, the person must know the statement is false. But for false statements, only “reckless disregard” for the truth is required [5]. So false statements have a lower bar for intent.

The maximum prison sentence for false statements is 5 years in prison, the same as perjury. But false statement offenses still may qualify for sentencing enhancements in certain circumstances.

Key Differences

In summary, here are some of the key differences between the crimes of perjury and false statements:

  • Oath – Perjury requires being under oath, false statements don’t
  • Intent – Perjury requires the person knows the statement is false, false statements only require reckless disregard for the truth
  • Penalties – While the maximum prison sentence is the same on paper, perjury may actually involve longer sentences in practice
  • Relevance – For perjury, the lie has to be relevant or material to the legal proceedings, but false statements have no relevance requirement

So while both perjury and false statements involve lying and deceit, perjury is generally considered the more serious offense given the oath requirement. But false statements are still a very serious crime with severe penalties.

Determining whether a lie constitutes perjury versus a false statement can be complicated. The specific facts and circumstances of each case determine what laws may have been violated. Anyone facing accusations of perjury, false statements, obstruction, or any other charges should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney.


There are some potential defenses that can apply to charges of both perjury and false statements:

  • Lack of intent – For perjury, the defendant must know the statement was false. For false statements, at least reckless disregard for the truth is required. So mistakenly making an incorrect statement would not qualify.
  • Immaterial lie – The lie has to be relevant and material to the proceedings or investigation. Simply telling an unimportant lie likely doesn’t meet the legal standard.
  • Recantation – Admitting the lie and coming forward with the true facts relatively quickly can potentially be a mitigating factor.
  • Mental state – Diminished mental capacity may be a defense against charges involving intent.

Because perjury and false statement laws can be complex, anyone facing charges should consult an attorney to understand how the specifics of their case interact with the elements of these crimes.


Lying under oath or to the federal government are serious offenses. Perjury and false statements have some technical differences, but both undermine the integrity of the legal system and important governmental functions. Understanding these differences can be important for anyone accused of such crimes. If you believe you may have violated either perjury or false statement laws, consulting an attorney is highly recommended.

Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not substitute legal advice from an attorney.


[1] https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/perjury
[2] https://www.justice.gov/jm/criminal-resource-manual-1748-elements-perjury-specific-intent
[3] https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1621
[4] https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/98-808.html
[5] https://www.justice.gov/archives/jm/criminal-resource-manual-916-false-statements-federal-investigator

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