Perjury: What Happens if You Lie Under Oath?

Perjury is a serious crime that judges and prosecutors think strikes at the very heart of the judicial system. Our entire criminal and civil justice process depends on the sworn testimony of witnesses who report what they know, what they’ve seen, and what they’ve heard to fact finders in a court of law. 


Before testimony of any kind is offered in an official proceeding, the person who will testify is given asked to take a solemn oath or affirmation promising to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” A similar affirmation is required whenever someone signs a document attesting to the truth of its contents “under the pains and penalties of perjury.” 


The criminal defense lawyers at Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law, address issues of witness credibility in every single case. Some prosecution witnesses stretch the truth, embellish, omit facts, and “shade the truth” when they testify. Some witnesses are plainly lying. While there may be little moral difference, the law treats these various levels of dishonesty differently. 


In this blog post, we’ll explain the law of Perjury under Florida law. If you have been accused of misrepresenting facts to a state official or providing false testimony while under oath, Stechschulte Nell has extensive experience with the law relating to false statements.  



What Is Florida’s Perjury Law? 


Florida law addresses two different types of perjury, one statute covers perjury during an official proceeding, and the second applies when perjury is committed outside of an official proceeding, as when someone lies on an official document.  


Before testimony of any kind is offered in an official proceeding, the person who will testify is given asked to take a solemn oath or affirmation promising to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” 


F.S. 837.02 Perjury in official proceedings — requires the prosecution to prove the following: 


  • The person makes a false statement  
  • During an official proceeding, that  
  • The person does not believe to be true 
  • Relating to a “material” matter. (See “What is “material?” below.) 


Violating this section of Florida law is a 3rd-Degree Felony punishable by up to 5 years in state prison and a $5,000 fine.  


However, if perjury is committed in relation to the prosecution of a capital felony, then the person providing the false statement can be prosecuted for a 2nd-degree felony which is punishable by up to 15 years in state prison and a $10,000 fine.  


Note: A person charged with making a false statement regarding a material matter does not need to be aware that the falsehood involves a material matter. The witness’s mistaken belief about the lie not touching on a material matter is not a defense. 


Materiality – Knowledge That Matter is Material  


What does it mean for something to be “material” to an issue? In legal terminology, materiality generally refers to the concept of whether something “matters” to the outcome of the case.  


For example, suppose a criminal defendant’s brother is called to testify by the prosecution about the defendant’s whereabouts at lunchtime on the day of the alleged crime. The witness tells the jury that he was with his brother eating lunch at a restaurant thirty miles from the scene of the crime. When asked what they ate, the witness testifies that they ate steak when they actually had seafood. 


Whether or not the brothers were truly eating lunch 30 miles away at the time of the crime is material. What they had to eat is immaterial. If the witness is lying about his brother’s alibi, then he can be prosecuted for perjury during an official proceeding. If he is only lying about the food, no perjury charge can be sustained.  


Who Decides What’s Material? 


Florida law provides that the judge will determine what is material. It is a question of law and not a question of fact. Juries decide questions of fact. If a trial judge rules that the statement in question was not material, then the jury will never have to consider the perjury charge because it will be dismissed. However, if the judge rules that the statement in question is material, then the jury will not be permitted to reassess that judgment.  


Defense of Recantation – Correcting the Falsehood 


Once someone lies under oath about a material fact in an official proceeding, it might seem that they have already gone too far to turn back. But the law favors truthfulness and provides for a witness to undo their harm by recanting their falsehood before it’s too late. 


When must the falsehood be recanted? 


If a witness provides testimony about a material fact they know to be false during an official proceeding, they can successfully defend a perjury charge under the following conditions: 


  • The witness admits the falsehood in the same proceeding or matter (before it ends), and 
  • the testimony has not already substantially affected the proceeding, and 
  • they disclosed and recanted the falsehood before it was apparent that the lie would be detected or exposed. 


For example, a witness who is subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury early in the investigation may offer false testimony, perhaps because they are afraid, or because they have not retained a criminal defense lawyer to advise them. 


Once they learn that they can be prosecuted for the lie, or they regret their misleading the proceeding, they can contact the prosecutors and inform them that they want to correct their earlier testimony. Depending on what has transpired since their original testimony, they may be permitted to recant and testify truthfully, thereby avoiding perjury charges. 


However, if they are contacted by prosecutors and confronted with the lie, only then to admit their false testimony and agree to correct it, prosecutors may or may not decide to file perjury charges. In most cases, the witness’s defense lawyer can persuade prosecutors to forego perjury charges if the witness offers truthful testimony while the grand jury remains in session. 


F.S. 837.012 Perjury when not in an official proceeding 


If someone signs a document and represents that they understand that including false information constitutes a crime, or if they sign before a notary, they can be prosecuted for perjury outside of an official proceeding.  


However, under these circumstances, Florida law provides that this type of perjury is a first-degree misdemeanor carrying a penalty of up to 1 year in jail and a $1,000 fine. 


Read More > What Should I Do if I Receive a Grand Jury Subpoena?  


Consult Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyers Before Testifying 


If you or your family member is required to testify as a witness in any official proceeding, always consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer to discuss the subject of your testimony in complete confidence without fear of being judged. 


Contact Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law for immediate consultation at 813-280-1244. 


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