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What is Perjury?

Updated on April 18, 2010

Perjury is the crime of giving false information to government officials or of giving false testimony in a law case. Ordinarily the crime can be committed only when the person making a statement is under oath. However, it is also perjury to falsify certain official documents or reports if the statute law so provides, and typically these documents contain the notation that the penalties of perjury apply.

In Anglo-American law, perjury originally was not punishable in the king's courts but was a matter for the ecclesiastical authorities. In 16th century England it came to be recognized as a criminal offense in the court of the Star Chamber. Perjury was at first punishable as a crime (felony) only if the false statements were made in judicial proceedings. However, statutes extended the matter to cover sworn falsehoods before - or in - other official proceedings.

Distinctions in Law

The law of perjury has had to distinguish between (1) false statements of great importance that seriously threaten the integrity of governmental processes and that indicate a disposition on the part of the speaker to subvert governmental action, and (2) those that are trivial and are consistent with carelessness and lack of precision. The general law contains a requirement, for example, that not all intentional false statements under oath constitute perjury, but only those that are "material" to the official injury.

Materiality has been defined as anything that "has a natural tendency to influence, impede, or dissuade [an official body] from pursuing its investigation." The materiality requirement has often proved to be a difficult point for the prosecution to overcome because high courts have frequently rendered very technical decisions, holding some statements to be innocent although clearly these statements were lies. For example, in the United States a witness falsely testified that she had been coerced in making certain statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But a perjury conviction was reversed because she had not asserted that the statements were incorrect, and therefore her assertions about police misconduct were said to be immaterial.

Some law reformers have pressed for the abolition of the materiality requirement. Others would merely change the law by defining materiality in a broad way- for example, as anything that "could have affected the course or outcome of [a] proceeding."

Special Circumstances

Sometimes a perjury conviction can be based on a criminal act that was long since banned from prosecution by the statute of limitations. For example, in a congressional investigation a witness may be asked about his conduct ten years before. If he makes a false denial, he may commit perjury even though the facts needed to show perjury are those that could not be the present basis of a criminal proceeding.

Generally, a retraction is not a defense to the crime of perjury. However, in some states of the United States such a defense exists, provided that the retraction is not made simply to beat a prosecution and provided, further, that the falsehood has not actually been harmful.

It is not perjury to lie to a policeman or other law-enforcement official, for those interrogated are not under oath. The Model Penal Code of the American Law Institute (1962) creates, after the manner of a few states, a new crime of giving false information to police authorities, but that code attaches a lesser penalty.


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