What is Perjury? - Definition, Penalty & Example

Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

After you complete this lesson, you will understand what constitutes perjury. You will also review the penalties for committing perjury, as well as some examples of perjury.


Imagine that you were a witness to a crime where a woman was robbed. You saw the entire thing and know exactly what happened. You are in court, observing the case where the defendant is on trial for the burglary. A friend of the defendant is called to the witness stand to provide his version of the facts of what happened. The friend says that the defendant did not commit the crime. In addition, the friend's statement of what happened is a lie, which you know because of your firsthand observation of the crime. This friend's lie represents perjury in the legal world.

Perjury occurs when a witness purposefully and intentionally lies to mislead the court of the facts of the pending matter. When one typically provides a legal statement, whether the statement is made on paper or in person (such as in the court), the statement will be sworn. This means that the statement is made under penalty of law. In other words, one swears to tell the truth or suffer the consequences of lying, which is imprisonment and/or fines.


When one commits perjury, there can be both imprisonment and penalties instated as a consequence of the lie. In addition, a judge could impose other types of penalties, such as community service.

The penalty for the commission of perjury is controlled by either federal law or state law. Under federal law, if one lies during the court proceeding, the maximum penalty is no more than five years of prison time or fines. Under the state law, one must look to the particular state where the action occurs, since that state will control the maximum amount of jail time or type of fine one may incur for committing perjury.


Perjury can best be understood by a set of examples. Let's say that Robert is testifying about his wife's infidelity. Robert purposefully lies, saying that his wife had multiple affairs, when he knows for certain that she has not had any affairs during their marriage. This purposeful and intentional lie would constitute perjury.

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