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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.

Further readings

Aycock, George W. III. 1993."Nothing But the Truth: A Solution to the Current Inadequacies of the Federal Perjury Statutes." Valparaiso Law Review 28.

Curriden, Mark. 1995. "The Lies Have It." ABA Journal 81.

Feinstein, Ami L. 1993. "United States v. Dunnigan and Sentence Enhancements for Perjury: Constitutional Perhaps, but Unnecessary in Fact." American Criminal Law Review 31.


n. the crime of intentionally lying after being duly sworn (to tell the truth) by a notary public, court clerk or other official. This false statement may be made in testimony in court, administrative hearings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, as well as by signing or acknowledging a written legal document (such as affidavit, declaration under penalty of perjury, deed, license application, tax return) known to contain false information. Although a crime, prosecutions for perjury are rare, because a defendant will argue he/she merely made a mistake or misunderstood.


noun act of oath-breaking, distortion of the truth, false statement, false swearing, falsehood, falseness, falsification, intentional misstatement, invention of lies, misstatement, periurium, perversion of truth, prevarication, untruth, violation of an oath, willful dissortion of the truth, willful falsehood, willful telling of a falsehood, willful telling of a lie
Associated concepts: subornation of perjury
Foreign phrases: Lex punit mendacium.The law punishes mendacity. Perjuri sunt qui servatis verbis juramenti deeipiunt aures eorum qui accipiunt. They are perjured, who, preserving the words of an oath, deceive the ears of those who receive it. Sacramentum si fatuum fuerit, licet falsum, tamen non committit perjurium. A foolish oath, although false, does not give rise to perjury. Qui non libere veritatem pronunciat proditor est veritatis. He who does not freely speak the truth is a betrayer of the truth.
See also: deceit, dishonesty, falsification, fiction, hypocrisy, misstatement, subreption


false swearing. The crime of judicial affirmation of falsehood upon oath or affirmation equivalent to oath. There needs to be a denial of what is true or an assertion of what is false. The statements complained of must be pertinent to the issue that was originally being tried.

PERJURY, crim. law. This offence at common law is defined to be a willful false oath, by one who being lawfully required to depose the truth in any judicial proceedings, swears absolutely in a matter material to the point in question, whether he be believed or not.
     2. If we analyze this definition we will find, 1st. That the oath must be willful. 2d. That it must be false. 3d. That the party was lawfully sworn. 4th. That the proceeding was judicial. 6th. That the assertion was absolute. 6th. That the falsehood was material to the point in question.
     3.-1. The intention must be willful. The oath must be taken and the falsehood asserted with deliberation, and a consciousness of the nature of the statement made; for if it has arisen in consequence of inadvertency, surprise or mistake of the import of the question, there was no corrupt motive; Hawk. B. 1, c. 69, s. 2; but one who swears willfully and deliberately to a matter which he rashly believes, which is false, and which he had no probable cause for believing, is guilty of perjury. 6 Binn. R. 249. See 1 Baldw. 370; 1 Bailey, 50.
     4.-2. The oath must be false. The party must believe that what he is swearing is fictitious; for, if intending to deceive, he asserts that which may happen to be true, without any knowledge of the fact, he is equally criminal, and the accidental truth of his evidence will not excuse him. 3 Inst. 166 Hawk. B. 1, c. 69, s. 6.
     5.-3. The party must be lawfully sworn. The person by whom the oath is administered must have competent authority to receive it; an oath, therefore, taken before a private person, or before an officer having no jurisdiction, will not amount to perjury. 3 Inst. 166; 1 Johns. R. 498; 9 Cowen, R. 30; 3 McCord, R. 308; 4 McCord, It. 165; 2 Russ. on Cr. 520; 3 Carr. & Payne, 419; S. C. 14 Eng. Com. Law Rep. 376; 2 Chitt. Cr. Law, 304; 4 Hawks, 182; 1 N. & M. 546; 3 McCord, 308; 2 Hayw. 56; 8 Pick. 453.
     6.-4. The proceedings must be judicial. Proceedings before those who are in any way entrusted with the administration of justice, in respect of any matter regularly before them, are considered as judicial for this purpose. 2 Chitt. Crim. C. 303; 2 Russ. on Cr. 518; Hawk. B. 1, c. 69, s. 3. Vide 3 Yeates, R. 414; 9 Pet. Rep. 238. Perjury cannot therefore be committed in a case of which the court had no jurisdiction. 4 Hawks, 182; 2 Hayw. 56; 3 McCord, 308; 8 Pick. 453: 1 N. & McC. 546.
     7.-5. The assertion must be absolute. If a man, however, swears that he believes that to be true which he knows to be false, it will be perjury. 2 Russ. on Cr. 518; 3 Wils. 427; 2 Bl. Rep. 881; 1 Leach, 242; 6 Binn. Rep. 249; Lofft's Gilb. Ev. 662.
     8.-6. The oath must be material to the question depending. Where the facts sworn to are wholly foreign from the purpose and altogether immaterial to the matter in question, the oath does not amount to a legal perjury. 2 Russell on Cr. 521; 3 Inst. 167; 8 Ves. jun. 35; 2 Rolle, 41, 42, 369; 1 Hawk. B. 1, c. 69, s. 8; Bac. Ab. Perjury, A; 2 N. & M. 118; 2 Mis. R. 158. Nor can perjury be assigned upon the valuation under oath, of a jewel or other thing, the value of which consists in estimation. Sid. 146; 1 Keble, 510.
     9. It is not within the plan of this work to cite all the statutes passed by the general government, or the several states on the subject of perjury. It is proper, however, here to transcribe a part of the 13th section of the act of congress of March 3, 1825, which provides as follows: "If any person in any case, matter, bearing, or other proceeding, when an oath or affirmation shall be required to be taken or administered under or by any law or laws of the United States, shall, upon the taking of such oath or affirmation, knowingly and willingly swear or affirm falsely, every person, so offending, shall be deemed guilty of perjury, and shall, on conviction thereof, be punished by fine, not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment and confinement to bard labor, not exceeding five years, according to the aggravation of the offence. And if any person or persons shall knowingly or willingly procure any such perjury to be committed, every person so offending shall be deemed guilty of subornation of perjury, and shall on conviction thereof, be punished. by fine, not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment and confinement to bard labor, not exceeding five years, according to the aggravation of the offence."
    10. In general it may be observed that a perjury is committed as well by making a false affirmation, as a false oath. Vide, generally, 16 Vin. Abr. 307; Bac. Abr. h.t.; Com. Dig. Justices of the Peace, B 102 to 106; 4 Bl. Com. 137 to 139; 3 Inst. 163 to 168; Hawk. B. 1, c. 69; Russ. on Cr. B. 5, c. 1; 2 Chitt. Cr. L. c. 9; Roscoe on Cr. Ev. h.t.; Burn's J. h.t. Williams' J. h.t.