How to Avoid Jail Time for Lying to the Government

How to Avoid Jail Time for Lying to the Government

Are you aware that it is a criminal offense to lie to a federal government official?  Title 18 of the US Code, Section 1001, a favorite of federal prosecutors, makes it unlawful to lie to a government agent, even if you:
· made the false statement without the obligations of an oath,
· didn’t receive warning of the law or its consequences,
· were not trying to cheat the government out of money,
· or lied about something that was not materially influential to government matters.

The Law

Federal law makes it illegal to intentionally make false statements in any matter “within the jurisdiction” of the government.  With the ever far-reaching powers of the federal government, much of what you say or lie about can be construed as a lie within government’s jurisdiction. 

For example, you lie about the number of hours you worked on your time sheet and submitted it to your employer.  Your employer submitted these documents to the government under some regulatory obligation.  Guess what?  Your little lies could be a federal crime, which could get you in big trouble with the law, should the government have an interest in something related to you, your employer, or the like.  You could find yourself in a mess of trouble even if your lies never particularly influenced anyone, so long as they are under the scope of Uncle Sam’s power. 

So, why would the government want to nail you for a little white lie?  Doesn’t the government go after the “big fish?”  While many federal officials are honest individuals, who do not wish to intentionally abuse Section 1001, there are some who are willing to use this statute to get to what they believe is justice.  Additionally, any power, and particularly the enormous power proffered by Section 1001, has the propensity to corrupt.  With pressure to crack down on white-collar crime, corporate corruption, and even terrorism, the temptations to abuse Section 1001 can be great. 

Protecting yourself

So when federal officers come knocking at your door, how do you protect yourself from telling lies that might violate Section 1001, while protecting your legal interests?  It is crucial to understand HOW to deal with federal officers.  

Let’s use an example to illustrate how even a “little fish” can get caught up in a wave of federal trouble.  Say, you recently worked for a securities firm and your boss and co-workers had been embezzling large amounts of money for purposes you know little about.  While you had been doing your best to keep yourself out of this sticky situation, you did have knowledge that a crime was taking place.  Perhaps you even took some small actions to aid in the commission of the crime.  For example, even handing over falsified records to an auditor under your boss’s orders can implicate you as an accessory to a felony crime.  Now you are working for another highly reputable securities firm.  You worked for years to get where you are.  You like that your new company plays by the books.   

One day, the FBI comes knocking on your door, asking questions about your previous workplace, your boss, and your co-workers.  You realize that if you tell the truth you risk losing your new position and all those years you have put into making a name for yourself in the industry.  You also worry that you are suspected of actually helping your old boss commit embezzlement.  If you lie, though, you could face federal indictment under Section 1001. What do you do?

Scenario one: You panic, as most people would, when the FBI comes to your door.  You begin to blurt out little lies to cover up your small misdeeds and protect yourself. Or, you lie and say you know nothing about the alleged embezzlement.  The FBI agents, who have been playing dumb about the facts regarding the embezzlement, did their homework and have enough evidence to prove you are lying.  Now, you face charges of lying to federal officials under Section 1001.  This is NOT good. 

Why might it NOT be good to speak with the federal agents at this time? 
First and foremost, you are not qualified to know for sure whether any of your past actions could constitute a criminal offense.  This leaves you extremely vulnerable, your legal interests compromised.  Second, you may unwittingly make factual mistakes during your interview with the federal agents, which could constitute a violation of Section 1001.  Third, you have not spoken with an attorney to figure out the best way to protect your legal rights and interests.  So what do you do? 

Scenario two:  The Feds arrive on your door step demanding answers about your previous place of employment.  You calmly and politely decline their requests for an interview, telling them your attorney will be in contact with them and you do not wish to speak with them without first consulting your legal counsel.  One of the two FBI agents at your door puts the pressure on you, demanding to know what you are hiding that requires the help of an attorney.  You don’t take his bait, and again, politely decline questioning until you have spoken with an attorney.  The other agent chimes in, asking you to promise that you will speak to them after you have spoken with your attorney.  You simply respond that your attorney will be in touch with them shortly and ask for their business card.  You don’t explain your reasons.  You thank the officers and tell them your attorney will be calling them soon. 

Now, even if you do not yet have an attorney, you can state your wishes to confer with a lawyer before submitting to federal questioning, in most circumstances (there are a few exceptions to this rule).  Your invocation of counsel cannot be later used against you.  NOTE: Politely declining the Feds request is NOT the same as remaining completely silent, which CAN be used against you down the road. 

After you have invoked your right to counsel, the prosecutor has to determine if you might have important enough information to justify obtaining a grand jury subpoena for your testimony.  This buys you time to seek the advice of a qualified and experienced criminal defense attorney. 

Additionally, there are some cases where it may be in your best interests to speak with the federal officials and even some cases where you are required to speak with them.  These can be discussed in greater detail with a qualified legal professional.  Conversely, there are some cases where it is a compromise of your legal interests to speak with federal agents even in the presence of your attorney.  Just look at Martha Stewart.  She sat next to her attorney when the FBI and the SEC questioned her about insider trading.  She wound up in jail. 

You may think the above scenario is outlandish, but in fact, situations like this happen all the time in the United States.  All of this can be extremely complicated.  What is important to get out of all of this is the following:

 What you say to federal officers and how and when you say it can have a major  effect on your future if you are somehow involved in a white-collar criminal  investigation.  

When is the best time to seek the advice of a qualified and experienced criminal defense attorney?  BEFORE the federal agents ring your doorbell.  If you are involved or may become involved in a white-collar criminal investigation, please contact us today to speak with a qualified attorney in your area who can answer your questions FREE OF CHARGE and help you protect your legal interests. 

Find a Lawyer Now

Search for a Criminal Law lawyer in your state or province by using the forms to the right.