When we see films or TV programs involving courtroom scenes, there is often a reference to perjury. Usually, one of the lawyers is claiming that a witness committed perjury or is reminding the witness that lying under oath is a crime. The implication is that the witness is not telling the truth, and that he or she is not providing the answer the lawyer wants to hear.
Most people are aware that perjury is a criminal offense. But lying under oath is not always perjury, and the difference between that crime and the related offense of false swearing is somewhat subtle. The offenses are defined as follows:
- Perjury (A.R.S. 13-2702). You commit the crime of perjury what you make as false sworn statement regarding a “material” issue, believing the statement to be false. You can also be charged with perjury for making such a statement unsworn, if you make the statement and you agree that it is true under penalty of perjury. In either case, the statement must be false, and it must be “material.” Perjury is a class 4 felony.
- False Swearing (A.R.S. 13-2703). This consists of making a false sworn statement which you believe is false. It is a class 6 felony.
When you cut through the language of the two statutes, the essential difference between them is that with perjury, the statement must be “material.” This is defined in the law as a statement that could have affected the outcome of a transaction or a proceeding. More often than not, the issue comes up in the context of witness testimony. Finally, the statute (A.R.S. 13-2701) says that the issue of materiality is a “question of law.” This means that even in a jury trial, the issue is one that is decided by the judge, not the jury.
While the difference between these two offenses may be relatively minor, the consequences – class 4 felony vs. class 6 felony – are not. The minimum (unmitigated) sentence for perjury is generally 1.5 years, while the minimum for false swearing is only 6 months.
Law Offices of David A. Black
40 North Central Avenue #1850
Phoenix, AZ 85004