What Is Perjury?

by Team eLocal
Court of Law Trial in Session: Portrait of Charismatic Male Public Defender Making Touching, Passionate Speech to Judge and Jury. Attorney Lawyer Protecting Client, Cross Examining Witnesses

If you've ever watched a courtroom drama on television, you've probably heard someone swear to "tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" in court. The legal definition of perjury can be more complex.

What Is Perjury?

The basic definition of perjury is lying under oath or providing false testimony. Under federal law 18 U.S.C. §1621, a person is guilty of perjury if they've taken a legally authorized oath to provide true information and they willfully provide information that they don't believe to be true.

Perjury does include lying under oath in court, but it can also include deliberately providing false or misleading information on legal documents. For example, many government forms require a signature affirming "under penalty of perjury" that the information provided is accurate. States also have laws surrounding perjury, and legal definitions may vary.

It’s best to contact an attorney if you have questions or concerns about these laws.

What Happens to a Person Who Commits Perjury?

A person who provides a false statement under oath may face perjury charges for violating state or federal laws. If convicted of perjury, a person may face fines, jail time and other legal consequences. Penalties may vary depending on whether a person is convicted under state or federal law.

What Is an Example of Perjury?

A prominent example of perjury is lying under oath in court. For instance, a person might offer false testimony to protect a friend accused of a crime. Perhaps the person testifies that their friend couldn’t have possibly committed the crime because they were together at the time, even though that’s not true. This is perjury.

But perjury can occur in less obvious situations as well:

  • Signing a tax return that you know is incorrect so you can pay less in taxes
  • Lying in a deposition or other legal hearings
  • Providing false information on a divorce petition or financial statement

A person is not guilty of perjury if they make a mistake, forget information or believe a statement to be true when it isn't.

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