Perjury is considered a crime against justice, since lying under oath compromises the authority of courts, grand juries, governing bodies, and public officials. Other crimes against justice include Criminal Contempt of Court, Probation Violation, and tampering with evidence.
Perjury has become a part of everyday vernacular in New York and throughout the United States. Whether you sign something under “Penalty of Perjury” or you watch Law and Order, Perjury pops up everywhere. So, instead of rushing out to a criminal defense attorney after you have been charged, the following is a “primer” on the law of Perjury.
Under the New York Penal Law, a person is guilty of Perjury in the Third Degree when he swears falsely. Perjury in the Third Degree is a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year in jail.
A person is guilty of Perjury in the Second Degree when he swears falsely and when his criminal false statement is (a) made in a subscribed written instrument for which an oath is required by law, and (b) made with intent to mislead a public servant in the performance of his official functions, and (c) material to the action, proceeding or matter involved.
A person is guilty of Perjury in the First Degree when he swears falsely and when his false statement (a) consists of testimony, and (b) is material to the action, proceeding or matter in which it is made. Perjury in the First Degree is a class D felony punishable by up to 7 years in state prison.
State and federal penalties for perjury include fines and/or prison terms upon conviction. Federal law (18 USC § 1621), for example, states that anyone found guilty of the crime will be fined or imprisoned for up to five years. Most state laws have similar provisions, but judges typically have discretion to use leniency (including probation in lieu of a prison sentence) where appropriate.
And if you are convicted, you may even lose your livelihood. If you work in a profession where truthfulness is valued, such as the legal profession, law enforcement, and some public service jobs, you could lose your professional license.
Perjury offenses run the gamut from class A misdemeanor (third-degree) to class D felony (first-degree) offenses. A person convicted of the least serious level of the offense, third-degree perjury, will be subject to a sentence of up to 1 year in prison, a fine of up to $1,000, or both. Conviction for first-degree perjury will result in a sentence including imprisonment for 3 to 7 years, a fine of up to $5,000, or both.
Defenses to Perjury Charges
• Truthfulness of statement
• Retraction of statement
• Perjury “trap” (prosecutor’s manner and method of questioning the witness evidences attempt to “trap” witness into committing perjury rather than to ascertain relevant facts)
• Mistaken belief of fact
The following are NOT defenses to perjury pursuant to Section 210.30 of the Penal Code:
• Defendant’s lack of competence to make the false statement
• Defendant’s mistaken belief in the fact’s immateriality
• Irregular administration of oath or defective authority or jurisdiction of attesting officer where such defect is excusable under any statute or rule of law
Prosecutors do not take perjury cases lightly, so you should contact an experienced defense attorney as soon as possible. Much like obstruction of justice charges, perjury charges are brought against individuals who have knowingly lied to law enforcement and prosecutors in order to either protect themselves or another individual, or to attempt to change the outcome of a case, which is also known as “perverting the course of justice.” Unlike obstruction of justice, however, perjury is committed while under oath. An individual can be under oath when they are testifying in court, or when they are being interviewed in pre-trial depositions. Because the individual is under oath, they will face much more stringent and serious penalties than the average obstruction of justice charge.
Armed with this information, you should have a basic understanding of Perjury. In the second part of this primer on Perjury I will review some of the statutory defenses set out by the Penal Law. However, keep in mind that a review of these statutes is no substitute for an analysis of applicable case law as well as the assistance of a New York Criminal defense attorney.
Even though perjury is a non-violent, non-drug-related offense, prosecutors take it very seriously and will pursue serious penalties for the accused. Because perjury has the potential to subvert justice and potentially contribute to a wrongful conviction or “miscarriage of justice,” Federal law makes perjury a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. If you are accused of perjury, you need an attorney who can represent you effectively and passionately.