When you swear to tell the truth, you are not only ethically held to tell the truth; you are legally obliged to do so. If you are caught lying under oath in California, you can be charged with knowingly providing false testimony while under oath, better known as perjury, a crime under California Penal Code 118 (PC). These charges do not only apply to courtroom testimonies but also to government documents, such as tax returns, driver’s license forms, or governmental benefit applications, where you have sworn the information is factual to the best of your knowledge. If you have been accused of committing perjury, contact an attorney as soon as possible.
What is Perjury Under California Law?
Although most people think of perjury only occurring in court, this crime is committed any time someone provides false information after swearing to tell the truth. Under California Penal Code section 118 (PC), it is still perjury whether you made the statement in person or on a document, such as an affidavit. You can also be charged with subordination of perjury under Penal Code 127 (PC) if you never lied but convinced someone else to make a false statement under oath.
The most common perjury charges in San Diego County are omissions or fraudulent statements on applications for government benefits like welfare and food stamps.
What are the Elements of Perjury?
For a person to be guilty of perjury, certain facts must apply. Specifically:
- The individual must have knowingly sworn to testify honestly under oath
- They must have willfully and intentionally said something was true, knowing that it was false
- The incorrect statement must be material or related to a material fact of the case
First, perjury cannot occur if someone does not swear to tell the truth under oath or if they did not realize they did so. For example, if someone was talking to another person and was not listening when another person asked them if they swore to tell the truth, they would not be responsible for what they said if they did not realize they were under oath. Similarly, if the oath was not administered properly, someone could not have been considered to perjure themselves, even if they knowingly lied believing they swore to tell the truth.
On the other hand, Penal Code 121 (PC) specifies that an oath is still valid if taken in an irregular manner, so as long as it is delivered correctly, it is legally permissible.
Next, someone must know that what they said was true, and they must make the statement purposefully. So, for example, if someone misspoke or said something they believed to be true that was incorrect, they would not be perjuring themselves.
On the other hand, it is still considered perjury to say an opinion if you don’t actually belive what you are saying. For example, you would still be perjuring yourself if you said, “I believe Don stole from Linda,” knowing that he didn’t do so, as saying “believe” does not negate the fact that you lied. Similarly, if you say something true but thought it was a lie when you made the statement, you would still be committing perjury.
Finally, a fact must be material or relevant to a material fact in the case. So, for example, if you were testifying in a murder trial and said you love golden retrievers, even though you actually hate that breed, your opinion of the dog would likely be irrelevant to the case, and therefore, you would not be committing perjury, even if you did like on the stand.
Is Perjury a Felony in California?
Yes. In California, both perjury and subordination of perjury are felonies, and the penalty for both offenses is up to four years in prison and $10,000 in fines. While rare, the penalty is much higher if someone who committed perjury or convinced someone else to do so caused an innocent person to be convicted and executed. Under California law, the sentence for perjury that resulted in the death of an innocent person is life imprisonment or the death penalty.
When Can Police Officers be Convicted of Perjury?
Law enforcement officers must also tell the truth when under oath and can face the same perjury charges as anyone else; however, Penal Code 118.1 (PC) also covers police officers who perjure themselves in police reports. An officer who files a false police report can be charged with a misdemeanor or felony. As a misdemeanor, this offense is punishable by no more than one year in jail, but as a felony, it is punishable by up to three years in state prison.
What is the Statute of Limitations for Perjury?
In California, the statute of limitations for perjury is three years from the date of discovery. Because this law relies on the date the perjury was discovered, someone could still face charges decades after perjuring themselves, as long as the DA files charges within three years of learning about the falsehood.
Defenses to These Charges
The good news is that to prove that you committed perjury, the prosecution must prove:
- You said or wrote something untrue
- Knew it to be untrue
- You were under oath at the time
- It was a material fact or related to one
If you have been accused of subordination of perjury, meaning you coerced or persuaded someone else to lie under oath, then the prosecution must prove those four details and that you influenced the other party to lie.
The most common legal defense to these criminal charges involves arguing that you did not knowingly lie or omit facts. You may claim this was because you did not know the truth or misunderstood a question. Similarly, if you lied about something immaterial, like your pet’s name, you will likely not be found guilty unless that detail directly relates to a material fact. Alternatively, you cannot be held responsible for lying if you never legally swore to tell the truth.
Even in cases where the prosecution has sufficient evidence to show that you did commit perjury, you can still benefit from the expertise of a good lawyer. Your attorney may be able to negotiate a plea bargain to minimize the number of charges you face or reduce your sentence. Alternatively, they may be able to arrange for you to be sentenced to a program allowing you to avoid incarceration, such as probation.
Unfortunately, the police often get people to confess against their best interests, so always contact a lawyer as soon as possible if you have been accused of perjury in San Diego. An attorney is critical in protecting yourself from saying something that may harm your case later.
Related Criminal Offenses
Those accused of perjury also frequently face other charges as well. Sometimes, those accused of perjury are so invested in perpetrating their lies that they also tamper with or falsify evidence and face charges under Penal Codes 141, 132, and 134 (PC). Those who lie on government documents are also often accused of committing fraud, and if they signed paperwork with another person’s signature, they could also be charged with forgery. If someone lies to the police before committing perjury, they could also be accused of falsely reporting a crime.
It is common for individuals to face multiple related charges, and the best way to fight these allegations and minimize your possible sentence is to work with a skilled criminal defense attorney.
If you have been accused of perjury or any related offense, please schedule a free initial consultation with San Diego attorney Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 to discuss your case.