Stretching the truth is pretty common these days on online dating sites, experts tell us, with high percentages of married people claiming to be single and people misstating their ages, heights, weights and job status. Fortunately for those seeking love online, there's no requirement that they set up their profiles under penalty of perjury. If there were, a lot of people might find out more about perjury in California than they ever wanted to know.
California Perjury Laws
Perjury is essentially lying under oath, although the criminal statutes define it in greater detail. You can find the core California perjury laws in Penal Code Section 118. Under the California perjury statute, a person is said to be guilty of perjury if they willfully state that a material matter is true when knowing it to be false, or false when they know it to be true and they make that false statement under penalty of perjury.
In order to be convicted of perjury in California, the prosecutor must prove all of the elements of the crime:
- You took an oath to provide true information.
- You willfully provided a statement as true, knowing that it was false.
- The information was important or material.
- When you made the statement, you intended to testify falsely.
- For written documents, you signed and delivered the document to someone else intending that it be taken as true.
Each of these elements is more complex than it sounds.
A Statement Under Oath
To be charged with perjury, the person must have made a statement under oath. That eliminates lies to your spouse and everything you post on social media, but it still leaves more than a few ways a person can commit perjury.
You most often hear the word perjury in relation to court cases. If someone gives false testimony in a civil or criminal case, they've committed perjury. False testimony by a witness is just as much perjury as false testimony by a party. But that's not all.
You are under oath when you give a deposition too, and intentionally false statements are perjury. You can also be criminally liable for any written statement you sign under penalty of perjury, like an affidavit, job application, tax return or financial statement for a loan or a scholarship.
Making a Deliberate or Willful False Statement
Any statement, written or oral, will satisfy the statement element of a perjury charge. But the intent of the law in using the term "statement" is that the person making the statement intends it to be broadcast to others, so a journal entry in your diary won't count.
A false statement must be unequivocally false to constitute perjury. If you give a misleading or ambiguous statement, that isn't perjury. And it has to be willfully false, meaning that if you believe it to be true when you make it, you aren't committing perjury even if it turns out you are wrong.
For example, if you testify in court that your spouse was at home on a certain evening, believing that to be true, you cannot be charged with perjury even if it turns out to be false. Likewise, if you claim a child is a college student because you had no idea that she had quit school and was working full time, it is not perjury.
The Statement Was Material
In order to be prosecuted for perjury under the California perjury statute, the statement at issue has to be material. The term is used in general speech to mean of great consequence, but under the Penal Code it has a slightly different meaning. Whether a statement is material for perjury charges depends on the potential effect of the statement on the outcome of the proceedings
Under Penal Code Section 118, a statement is material if it affects the outcome of the proceedings where it was made or could have affected the outcome of those proceedings. It is not necessary that the person making the statement knew that it was material, nor does the statement have to be directly material. If it can indirectly prove or disprove a critical issue, that is probably enough to satisfy the materiality element of the crime.
Penalties for Perjury
In California, perjury is taken very seriously. Under Penal Code Section 118, perjury is a felony, and anyone convicted of perjury can be sentenced to up to four years in state jail and hit with a fine of up to $10,000. On the other hand, a judge has discretion to impose a much lighter sentence. The punishment can be as little as felony probation or some lesser period of time in jail.
The criminal court judge usually considers a defendant's criminal record in determining a sentence. It is an aggravating circumstance if the perjury caused someone else harm. And anyone who willfully makes a false statement that results in the conviction and execution of another person can be sentenced for aggravated perjury. It can be punished much more severely than ordinary perjury, with a possible sentence of life imprisonment without parole or even death.
Subornation of Perjury
Persuading someone else to commit perjury is also perjury under California Penal Code Section 127. If one person tries to talk someone else into lying under oath and they succeed, both are guilty of perjury offenses. The one who gives false testimony is guilty of perjury, and the one persuading him to do so is guilty of subornation of perjury.
In order to prove you committed the crime of subornation of perjury, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:
- You convinced another person to give a false statement under oath.
- That person gave a false statement under oath about a material matter.
- The statement was willfully made with knowledge that it was false.
- You knew that the perjurer's statements were false.
The same penalties that apply to a perjury conviction also apply to someone convicted of subordination of perjury. If the person you push to commit perjury refuses to do it, you can be convicted only of solicitation of perjury.
Read More: Who Prosecutes Perjury Charges on an Affidavit?
California Perjury Statute of Limitations
California has complex laws that set out the limitations periods for filing criminal cases. A criminal statute of limitations specifies how long the prosecutor has to bring an action. The time period usually runs from the time of the crime, but various tolling statutes can postpone the beginning of the limitations period.
For perjury, the statute of limitations within which an action can be brought is three years. The statute does not commence until the discovery of the offense.
Defenses to a Perjury Charge
Anyone charged with a crime under California perjury statutes has the right to defend themselves against the charges. Common defenses to perjury include a refutation of any of the elements of the crime:
Testimony not willfully false. Perjury requires proof that a person willfully made a false statement. If a defendant honestly believed that the statement was true at the time he made it, that is a defense to a perjury charge, even if it the statement turns out to be false. You may have been mistaken or misunderstood what you saw or heard, but it was not a willfully false statement.
Question asked was misunderstood. Hearing a different question than the one asked or misunderstanding the inquiry is also a valid defense. If you take back and correct your testimony soon after you give it, it tends to suggest that you made an error rather than that you were willfully lying.
Inadequate evidence of the falsity of your testimony. The prosecutor must offer persuasive testimony that your statement was not true. Simply having another person testify differently than you is not sufficient to prove that you lied.
Forged signature. If you are charged with perjury for making a false written statement, it is a valid defense to show that the signature on the statement was made by someone else.
In sum, perjury is when a person, after having taken an oath to speak truthfully in a court case or proceedings, makes a false statement in regards to a material matter to the case. The person must make the false statement knowing it to be false but still with the intent to present it as true.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.