Perjury in Texas: Can Lying Under Oath Really Land You in Jail?
When a witness is called to testify in a criminal proceeding, the judge will ask them to raise their right hand and swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” This oath should not be taken lightly. Individuals who knowingly lie in court could find themselves in serious trouble with the law, but perjury is a much broader concept. Here’s a look at Texas perjury laws and the consequences for lying under oath.
The Difference between Perjury and Aggravated Perjury in Texas
Perjury and aggravated perjury both deal with lying or deliberately giving misleading information, but they are actually two separate offenses with their own elements and punishment ranges.
Perjury in Texas
According to Texas Penal Code 37.02, perjury occurs when a person, with intent to deceive and knowledge of the statement’s meaning:
- Makes a false statement under oath or swears to the truth of a false statement previously made and the statement is required to be made under oath; or
- makes a false unsworn declaration under Chapter 132, Civil Practice and Remedies Code.
In addition to lying in court, perjury also could include lying on your tax return, during a deposition or in an affidavit.
Aggravated Perjury in Texas
According to Texas Penal Code 37.03, aggravated perjury occurs if a person commits perjury as defined in 37.02 and the false statement:
- is made during or in connection with an official proceeding; and
- is material.
A “material” false statement is one that could have affected the course or outcome of a case. Whether a false statement is material or not is up to the judge to decide. Some cases may be obvious. For example, if a witness lies about their age in a murder trial that would most likely not be material, as it has no bearing on the outcome of the trial. It the witness lies about the whereabouts of the defendant during the time of the murder that could be considered material.
To simplify, the main difference between perjury and aggravated perjury is that aggravated perjury must occur during an official proceeding, such as a trial, and the statement must be impactful enough to potentially influence the outcome of a case or a ruling.
Can You Go to Jail if You Commit Perjury?
The Texas judicial system takes allegations of perjury very seriously. Jail time and fines are a possibility for individuals who violate Texas perjury laws and plenty of people have found themselves behind bars:
- Perjury is a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in the county jail and a $4,000 fine.
- Aggravated perjury is a third-degree felony, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Not only that, perjury in Texas is a crime of moral turpitude, which means the public generally considers it morally wrong. Individuals convicted of crimes of moral turpitude can face additional hardships, such employment, housing, and immigration issues.
How is Perjury Investigated?
During a criminal proceeding, prosecutors and their investigators may suspect that a witness’ testimony is not true and view evidence or cross-check testimony to see if they can catch the witness in a lie. Other times, the witness may even admit during questioning that they made a false statement.
In most cases, an individual will not be arrested on the spot. It could take weeks or months for officials to investigate and try to prove that the witness intentionally lied.
For example, it took Tarrant County prosecutors eight months to investigate and charge two key witnesses with aggravated perjury in 2000 after they falsely testified during Jimmy Watkins’ murder trial. The case garnered national attention, in part, because the women’s false testimony about a phone call helped persuade jurors to give Watkins probation rather than prison time.
Is There a Defense You Can Raise for Perjury?
An individual facing a perjury charge may have legal recourse. Under Texas perjury laws, there is a defense for perjury.
If an individual retracts, or withdraws, his or her statement before the completion of their testimony during the proceeding, they are precluded from being prosecuted. In order to use this defense, the individual must correct their statement before it becomes obvious that it was false.
Also, making a mistake or remembering facts inaccurately is not against the law. That’s why it’s imperative to contact an experienced defense attorney immediately if you or a loved one is facing possible charges of perjury in Texas.