What is Perjury?
Thanks to the President tweeting his concerns about a ‘perjury trap,’ it seems that there are more stories in the media about perjury. Most people assume it is lying – and while there is some truth to that, it goes a bit further.
Perjury is defined as ‘the offense of willfully telling an untruth or making a misrepresentation under oath.’ There are two elements that are important to note: intent and under oath. Being mistaken, or being unsure about something and then stating it as fact may not be enough to count as a willful telling. Of course, if you are unsure, and then when pressed you to state that you are absolutely positive, this will be closer to perjury. The second part is that the person speaking must be under oath. Many times, this is when in a courtroom giving testimony. But you can be under oath or under penalty of perjury even when signing government documents.
So what is a perjury trap?
This phrase came as a result of President Trump stating that he was not inclined to speak with Special Prosecutor Mueller, stating that he is best friends with Comey. He is concerned that it would be his word against former FBI chief James Comey, and that Mueller may be more inclined to believe Comey over Trump. So, in his words, “Even if I’m telling the truth, that makes me a liar.”
That’s not exactly what a perjury trap is, though. A perjury trap usually occurs when a prosecutor asks questions of a witness knowing they will lie, and then trapping them on their line of questioning when their story falls apart. Instead, what President Trump is referring to is when two people have two different recollections of the same event (which happens all the time in legal proceedings). He seems to be implying is some sort of prosecutorial misconduct, or even conspiracy or intent to rely on the word of one person over the other because of a personal relationship in spite of the truth or evidence.
However, to date, there has not been any real evidence to demonstrate there is prosecutorial misconduct. And remember, lying to the press (or on Twitter) is a completely different set of circumstances than lying under oath – or even to federal investigators, which is a separate crime in and of itself.
What’s the status of perjury in New York?
New York Penal Law has multiple crimes of perjury, in varying degrees. Section 210.15 describes perjury in the first degree, which is when you make a false statement under oath that consists of testimony which is material to the proceeding in which it was made. In this case, testimony is considered to be an oral statement made under oath in a proceeding before any court, agency or public servant who is authorized to conduct a proceeding. If the statement is in writing, then it might be a violation of New York Penal Law §210.45, which makes writing a false statement punishable under the law.
Sentences for Perjury
Perjury in the first degree is a class D felony in the state of New York. If convicted, the sentence includes a prison term of up to 7 years, a potential probation period of 5 years, and the possibility of a significant fine. Under federal law, perjury generally carries with it either a fine or a term of imprisonment up to five years (or both). It seems unlikely that the President would be caught in any kind of perjury trap. Instead, it seems like he just wants to avoid speaking to Mr. Mueller. And after the week he’s had, I can’t say I blame him.