What is perjury? Great question. We see the term perjury being thrown around in the media. We see it in relation to criminal defendants. We also see it used in relation to people who are testifying before Congress. Often, it seems like the people using the term on television may not fully know what it means or how it is applied. Perjury, at its most basic level, means saying something that is not true after you have sworn to tell the truth in a legal setting.
First, let’s look at what the term means in Colorado. Colorado has several crimes that involve some form of perjury. Perjury in the first degree occurs when an individual, while under oath in an official proceeding, makes a “materially false statement” that he or she did not believe to be true. Let’s unpack that a little bit. To prove perjury, the prosecution first would have to prove that the person made a materially false statement. That means it can’t just be a little mistake or about something irrelevant. It has to be about something that would have actually impacted the proceeding. Second, and this is the important part, the person has to know the statement is false at the time he or she makes the statement. If you are guessing about something, and guess wrong, that isn’t perjury. Or if you say something, and learn later that what you said was wrong, that isn’t perjury. You have to know you are lying at the time you give the testimony. And, finally, it has to be in an official proceeding like a legislative hearing or court case.
Perjury in the second degree occurs when the lie happens outside an official proceeding but while the person is still under oath. The elements of that crime are similar, except the prosecution would also have to prove that the person intended to mislead a public servant.
Finally, Colorado has a crime called “false swearing,” which is similar to perjury in the first degree, except it does not require the crime to occur in an official proceeding. Essentially, if you make a materially false statement while under oath, you are guilty of false swearing.
At the federal level, which may be more relevant at this time, the law is very similar. To convict someone of perjury at the federal level, the government has to prove that the individual willfully violated the oath to tell the truth by giving false testimony, which he or she did not believe to be true at the time, about a material matter. Like under state law, a mistake or misremembering something is not a criminal act. Lying about something that doesn’t matter, like what you had for breakfast, is not a criminal act. Only lies that the person speaking knows are lies can be criminal, and they are only criminal if the lie is about something “material” to the testimony.
So what is perjury? Overall, perjury is a crime at both the state and federal level. It criminalizes testimony that is both known to be false and is material to the proceeding. As always, if you or someone you know has been charged with a crime or injured in an accident, call CGH at 303-209-9395. Life happens. We can help.