Defending Against Perjury Charges in the State of Florida
Our legal system operates at its optimum level when all witnesses who testify in court tell the truth. That is why witnesses are sworn to tell the truth, by oath or affirmation, before any lawyer gets to ask a question of the witness. Testifying truthfully is, therefore, the backbone of the American justice system. Lying under oath, or perjury, as the crime is known, is an affront to the integrity of our courts.
Perjury charges are difficult to prove in Florida courts. The state’s attorney has the obligation to prove that the person gave false testimony knowingly and intentionally, generally speaking. The difficulty of proving a perjury charge lies in proving that the person charged knew the testimony given was false rather than a mistake or a misunderstanding. The accused also has a valid defense if the false statement made under oath pertained to an ancillary rather than material matter. Materiality is determined by a judge before the perjury trial commences. A material matter is one that might affect the outcome or the course of the legal proceedings.
The specific elements of the crime of perjury depend on the situation in which the witness allegedly lied. Florida’s legislature has passed three statutes that describe the crime of perjury and its potential penalty. Although most people associate perjury with criminal trials, perjury could be committed during civil trials and hearings, juvenile court trials and hearings, and family court trials and hearings and other legal proceedings in which oaths to testify truthfully are administered to the witness. An oath is a declaration that the witness understands that the testimony to be given must be true and that the law will hold the individual responsible for untruthful testimony. Swearing an oath also appeals to the witness’s sense of right and duty to testify honestly.
Florida Statutes §837.02 defines perjury when the untruthful testimony is given during an official proceeding. Perjury under §837.02(1) is a false statement made by a witness which the witness knows is not true, and the statement is made while under oath during an official proceeding. The untruthful statement must pertain to a material matter. Perjury, in this instance, is a third-degree felony and is punished by not more than five years in the Florida state prison, up to five years of probation, and a fine of not more than $5,000.00.
The potential penalty increases if the perjurious statement was given during a capital felony trial. If a witness makes a knowingly false statement concerning a material matter during a capital felony trial, then the witness has committed a second-degree felony, according to §837.02(2). A person convicted of committing perjury during a capital felony trial or hearing could face up to fifteen years in a Florida prison and up to a fine of $10,000.00.
The person accused of perjury does not have to know that the false statement was material to be convicted under §837.02(3). Therefore, the statute does not afford a defense to the defendant who committed perjury despite believing the false testimony did not relate to a material matter.
An official proceeding is not limited to a criminal or civil trial. Official proceedings in Florida include testimony before a commissioner, notary, administrative law judge, hearings officer, hearings examiner, legal referee, magistrate, and any person authorized by Florida law to hear testimony or take a deposition.
Florida law contains a separate statute relevant to non-official proceedings. Examples of non-official proceedings are signing a document averring that it is true and complete such as a marriage license or a statement made under oath to an insurance investigator during an examination regarding a claim.
Under Florida Statutes §837.012, perjury committed during a non-official proceeding is a first-degree misdemeanor. Accordingly, the offender could be sentenced to serve no more than one year in the country jail, given probation for one year, and assessed a fine not to exceed $1,000.00.
Perjury in non-official proceedings is essentially the same crime as perjury in official proceedings. Under §837.012(1), a person who lies under oath and knows that the statement is not truthful during a non-official proceeding is guilty of perjury, provided that the false statement related to a material matter. Section 837.012(2) prevents the person accused of committing perjury in a non-official proceeding from arguing that the witness did not know that the false statement related to a material matter.
In Florida, perjury may also be committed by giving contradictory statements. Under Florida Statutes §837.021, A person is guilty of perjury by making contradictory statements when the witness makes two or more material statements under oath that contradict each other. The contradictory statements could be given during one official proceeding or more than one official proceeding. A person convicted of perjury by contradictory statements faces a third-degree felony and could serve up to five years in state prison and assessed no more than a $5000.00 fine.
Under §837.021(2), the crime becomes a second-degree felony if the contradictory statements were made during official proceedings concerning a capital felony. A second-degree felony in Florida carries with it the potential of a fifteen-year state prison sentence along with a fine not more than $10,000.00, in addition to a term of probation.
In a prosecution for perjury committed by contradictory statements, the prosecutor could elect to go forward with a single count of perjury that sets out the willful utterance of contradictory statements while under oath and alleges that one or more statements or false. The prosecution does not have to prove which statement is not true; however, the state’s attorney must prove that the statement was made regarding a material matter. The judge will decide if the statement was material as a question of law.
The defendant may aver that he or she believed each statement to be true when the person made the contradictory statements. Furthermore, no person could be prosecuted for making contradictory statements in separate proceedings if the most recent contradictory statement was given while testifying under a grant of immunity. However, the witness could be charged with perjury for making a false statement in the most recent proceeding. Therefore, a grant of immunity will not protect a witness from lying under oath.