Last updated on May 7th, 2019
“Perjury” is a legal term for the act of knowingly making a false statement under oath. This includes falsifying information on legal documents, as well as lying in court.
In Virginia, perjury is a Class 5 felony. A conviction for perjury could result in the loss of certain rights, a hefty fine, and even time in prison.
In this article, we’ll go over the ins and outs of Virginia’s laws against perjury. We’ll also talk about how you can avoid perjuring yourself in the first place.
Keep in mind that the information in this article only applies to perjury in Virginia courts. Perjury in a federal court, grand jury, or tribunal is handled under federal law, which works quite differently.
What Types of Perjury Does Virginia Recognize?
There are several different types of perjury, which all relate with telling, or conspiring to tell, false statements in court.
Making a False Statement Under Oath
Most perjury cases involve defendants who have made false statements in court, but may also involve false statements made in an official written document. In all cases, the state is required to prove three facts.
The state has to demonstrate each of the following beyond a reasonable doubt in order to obtain a conviction for perjury:
- The defendant made a false statement under oath. This means that the defendant must have had the opportunity to understand the nature of their oath or implied oath.
- The defendant must have known that their statement was false.
- That false statement must be materially relevant to a case.
In addition, the state must prove that your statement was false in the first place. If they can’t prove that your statement was false (either through evidence or testimony) then, by definition, they can’t prove you mislead the court.
Giving Conflicting Testimony
In addition to the more common definition of perjury above, Virginia also criminalizes perjury by giving conflicting testimony. However, this doesn’t mean that every conflicting statement by a witness is perjury in Virginia.
Instead, the law applies only to conflicting statements that the defendant knowingly made with the intent to deceive.
Falsifying Information in Legal Documents
Another type of perjury common in Virginia is lying in legal documents. Examples include lying on driver’s license applications, marriage certificates, divorce proceedings, and the like.
As in every type of perjury, the state has to prove that you willingly and knowingly falsified the information in question. Unintentional mistakes can never be perjury.
Similarly, it is perjury to certify the authenticity of documents you believe to be false. This applies to both legal documents and evidence which you are asked to certify under oath.
Again, this isn’t a law criminalizing honest mistakes. It applies only in cases where the defendant has firsthand knowledge of a document’s in-authenticity.
Inciting Another to Perjury
Finally, Virginia also considers the act of inciting another person to lie under oath (or falsify court documents) to be perjury.
Can I Perjure Myself by Accident?
In theory, perjury only refers to deliberate statements of fact. However, it can be difficult to prove that contradictory statements were accidental in nature.
Even if a state prosecutor is unable to prove a perjury case, the court proceedings themselves can be long, troublesome, and expensive.
For that reason, it’s important to be careful with statements that you make under oath. While Virginia does allow you to recant a statement that you made under oath, a recanted statement can still be the basis for a perjury conviction.
If you believe that you have misrepresented the truth in court, it’s in your best interest to correct the record as soon as possible. Don’t wait until the proceedings are over to recant your statement.
Other Forms of Purjury
There are a few other forms of perjury that come up less often.
Most notably, lying that someone is over 18 in order to get a marriage license also counts as perjury in Virginia.
What Are the Penalties for a Perjury Conviction?
As stated above, perjury is a Class 5 felony in Virginia, carrying all the normal penalties of that class.
Additionally, Class 5 is a “wobbler” class. This means that the state may choose to try the crime as either a Class 1 misdemeanor or a Class 5 felony depending on the circumstances.
Frequently, the state will make this decision as part of a plea agreement with the defendant.
As a result, there are two general paths a sentence might take:
If Tried as a Felony – The perjury conviction will result in a fine of up to $2,500 and/or a prison sentence of up to ten years.
Additionally, as a felon, you will permanently lose many rights, including the right to vote, serve on a jury, hold political office, and own a firearm. Eventually, you may be able to petition the governor’s office to restore certain rights.
If Tried as a Misdemeanor – The perjury conviction will result in a fine of up to $2,500 and/or up to a year in jail.
Civil Penalties for Perjury
On paper, perjury is supposed to be tried as a criminal offense. However, often judges will instead impose civil penalties so that they don’t have to deal with the Commonwealth Attorney (who has jurisdiction over criminal perjury cases).
This is especially true in family law cases, where judges will often punish perjury with contempt charges. This ruling will often result in fines and even jail time.
Less commonly, a judge might treat perjury as an obstruction of justice.
What Are Possible Defenses in Perjury Cases?
If you do find yourself in court for perjury, you should work with an attorney to develop a legal defense.
If you can prove any of the following, you may be able to invalidate the state’s case against you.
The Statement Was Not Made Under Oath
Perjury applies only to statements made under oath. If you did not undertake a legal oath, implicitly or explicitly, you can not have committed perjury.
The same is true if you somehow did not understand that you were under oath at the time you made the statement.
You Didn’t Know the Statement Was Untrue
In order to commit perjury, you must have intentionally made a statement you knew to be false.
Perjury does not apply to statements that you knew to be false. The same is true of mistakes resulting from confusion or a lapse in memory.
The Statement is “Not Materially Relevant”
Finally, only statements materially relevant to the legal issue at hand count as perjury. As a somewhat humorous example that is often cited in Virginia perjury cases:
In the 1884 case Rhodes v. Com. (78 Va. 692), conflicting testimony was presented to the court about the theft of bacon.
Instead of trying the individuals for perjury, the court determined that conflicting testimony about the date of the alleged theft wasn’t relevant (or “material”) and thus no perjury occurred.
This ruling established case law that “the mere falsity of the statement alone will not sustain a perjury conviction.”
Essentially, if you can prove that the thing you lied about has nothing to do with the subject of the case (such as the exact date the bacon was stolen), then the court might rule that the lie didn’t meet the legal requirements for perjury.
Virginia courts treat perjury just as seriously as federal courts. If the state has charged you with perjury, or if you believe the state will do so, contact a lawyer immediately.
Even if you are innocent, preparing a perjury defense can be a long, exacting process. Hiring the right legal counsel is your best bet for avoiding prison time and the permanent loss of your rights.