(Editor’s Note: Perjury and making false statements to government officials are complex topics. This article is geared specifically to the question of whether a lie is truly a lie “if you believe it.” There are many other issues to perjury, including the materiality of the statement, whether the perjurer has defrauded the government, how to prove perjury, and some other factors. Those will not be discussed in depth here.)
After Jerry’s girlfriend Sgt. Cathy Tierny challenges him to take a lie detector test to prove he doesn’t really watch Melrose Place, Jerry panics that he won’t be able to pass the exam. To help him learn how to lie, George teaches Jerry that “it’s not a lie if you believe it.” Legally, is this is true? Is it really not a lie if you believe it?
Perjury and making false statements are the crimes of lying to government officials in their official capacity. The U.S. Federal Code makes it illegal for a person to make a statement that he or she does not believe to be true in three different locations (and a 4th statute criminalizes paying others to lie).
Under the first, which applies to general false statements to authorities, an individual will be liable if he knowingly and willfully “makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation.” Taking an oath is not a requirement of this statute.
Under the second, which is the general perjury statute, an individual will be liable if he takes an oath and “willfully and contrary to such oath states or subscribes any material matter which he does not believe to be true.” While this statute uses the term “willfully,” the law treats it as “virtually identical” to “knowingly.”
Under the third, which is perjury before a court proceeding, an individual will be liable if he takes an oath and “knowingly makes any false material declaration” to the court.
Confused? We’ll break it down.
While all of these statutes use slightly different terms, they all criminalize knowingly/willfully making false statements to government officials. This means that a person must actually have the intent to say something false in order for them to have violated the law. If a person makes a statement that is false, but does so “as a result of confusion, mistake or faulty memory” then that won’t be considered perjury because there was no intent to make a false statement. So if a person makes a false statement, but does so because they misunderstood the court’s question, honestly mis-remembered something, or just made a simple mistake, then that will likely not be considered perjury. Therefore, it seems that if a person truly believes something to be true then they will not face liability for perjury as they did not willfully or knowingly make a false statement.
Additionally, giving misleading answers under oath, or giving a truthful answer that is not responsive to the court’s question, is not likely to be considered perjury. For instance, with regards to the “beard” plot-line of the episode, if Robert’s boss had asked Elaine if she was Robert’s girlfriend, and she had responded that they were going out, then Elaine would not be guilty of having violated the perjury statute. Although she certainly was misleading him with this hypothetical answer, by using a phrase that can also indicate the two were dating, it is not actually a lie. He and Elaine were really going out that evening. She had given him a truthful answer, and it would not be her legal responsibility if he misinterpreted what she meant.
Needless to say, it is difficult to prove that someone has committed perjury, and it requires looking at the entire circumstances of the case. A prosecutor bringing a perjury charge would have to prove that the subject actually knew what they were saying was false. This can be extremely difficult because people do remember things differently, or even make honest mistakes when trying to recall events. For example, even if Sgt. Tierny had extrinsic proof that Jerry was a fan of Melrose Place, that might not be enough to prove he was telling a bald-faced lie when he answered the polygraph questions with “I don’t know.” Even though it was later clear that Jerry had watched the show, it is still possible that he had forgotten the specifics of what had happened in some of the episodes. George, on the other hand, is clearly lying to his girlfriend by wearing a toupee and hiding his own baldness. It could easily be shown that he, is in fact, actually…
There is one clear cut example of where Jerry might be guilty of perjury though. Earlier in the episode, Jerry’s pants were on fire when he expressly denied to Sgt. Tierny that he watches Melrose Place. Jerry responds with “no” when directly asked if he has seen the show, and then says “I admit it. I don’t watch it” when she challenges him to admit that he really does watch the show. If Sgt. Tierny could find outside proof that Jerry does watch the show, thereby contradicting his statements to her, then that would violate the perjury statute.
During the polygraph exam, though, Jerry might have one incredible defense. When, in a court proceeding, a witness commits perjury and then later in the same proceeding “admits such declaration to be false” he cannot be prosecuted for the lie. So when Jerry finally admits that he watches the show during the polygraph exam – “Yes! That stupid idiot. He left her for Kimberly, he slept with her sister. He tricked her into giving him half her business, and then she goes ahead and sleeps with him again. I mean she’s crazy. How could she do something like that? Oh that Jane, she makes me so mad.” – this would likely nullify all of his previous perjurious statements (assuming this occurred in a courtroom).
So is George right? Is it really not a lie if you believe it? Legally it seems to be so. The Department of Justice website even says that if a “defendant believed his or her statement to be true when it was made, even though it was false” then this will effectively prevent a prosecution of perjury.
So, while lying to your girlfriend might be socially unacceptable, unless you’re George, it would be highly unlikely that Jerry would face any legal trouble for his denials here. He isn’t making any of the statements for a government purpose, like an investigation, formal document, or court proceeding.
Say it with George, everyone!