A crime that occurs when an individual willfully makes a false statement during a judicial proceeding, after he or she has taken an oath to speak the truth.
The common-law crime of perjury is now governed by both state and federal laws. In addition, the MODEL PENAL CODE, which has been adopted in some form by many states and promulgated by the Commission on Uniform State Laws, also sets forth the following basic elements for the crime of perjury: (1) a false statement is made under oath or equivalent affirmation during a judicial proceeding; (2) the statement must be material or relevant to the proceeding; and (3) the witness must have the SPECIFIC INTENT to deceive.
The punishment for perjury in most states, and under federal law, is the imposition of a fine, imprisonment, or both. Federal law also imposes sentencing enhancements when the court determines that a defendant has falsely testified on her own behalf and is convicted. Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the court is required to automatically increase the defendant's sentence.
Two federal statutes govern the crime of perjury in federal proceedings. Title 18 U.S.C.A. § 1621 codifies the COMMON LAW of perjury and consists of the elements listed above. In 1970, the scope of section 1621 was expanded by the enactment of 18 U.S.C.A. § 1623. Section 1623 changes the definition of intent from willfully offering false testimony to merely having knowledge that the testimony is false. In addition it adds to the definition of perjury to include the witness's use of information, including any book, paper, document, record, recording, or other material she knows contains a false material declaration, and includes proceedings that are ancillary to any court, such as affidavits and depositions, and GRAND JURY proceedings. Section 1623 also contains a retraction defense. If, during the proceeding in which the false statement was made, the person admits to the falsity of the statement before it is evident that the falsity has been or will be exposed, and as long as the falsity does not affect the proceeding substantially, prosecution will be barred under section 1623.
Commentators believe that the existence of these two federal statutes actually frustrates the goals of Congress to encourage truthful statements. The reasoning behind this concern is that when a retraction exists, prosecutors may charge a witness with perjury under section 1621 and when a retraction does not exist, the witness may be charged under section 1623.
Two variations of perjury are SUBORNATION OF PERJURY and false swearing; in many states these two variations are separate offenses. Subornation of perjury is a crime in which the defendant does not actually testify falsely but instead induces, persuades, instigates, or in some way procures another witness to commit perjury. False swearing is a false statement made under oath but not made during an official proceeding. Some states have created a separate offense for false swearing, while others have enacted perjury statutes to include this type of false statement. These crimes also may be punished by the imposition of a fine, imprisonment, or both.
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