If federal law enforcement agents show up unexpectedly at your home or office to “ask you a few questions,” you might think it’s best to talk to them. Even if you don’t tell them the full truth or you even give them some answers that you know aren’t entirely accurate, you may not think there will be any ramifications.
That’s not the case. You don’t have to lie under oath to face criminal consequences. If you lie to any federal investigator, agent or prosecutor, you could be charged with a federal offense on top of whatever criminal offenses they’re investigating in the first place.
Ask Martha Stewart. The one-woman conglomerate served time in federal prison after she became involved in an insider trading scandal. However, the charge the jury found her guilty of specifically involved her lies to federal authorities and not the insider trading activity.
Can all lies to federal authorities get you in legal trouble?
It depends on whether a lie is “material” to the case. Under federal law, any “materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” to federal authorities is a crime. If you misremember or don’t tell the truth about a minor detail, prosecutors may not charge you for that. However, if you intentionally lie about something relevant to the alleged crime, you could find yourself facing charges of making false statements to authorities and/or possibly obstruction.
If a person provides less than truthful information about minor details, that likely won’t result in a separate charge. However, if the lies are material to the case and may in fact hinder the investigation, they can expect to face charges for making false statements and even obstruction.
The best way to avoid this is not to talk to any law enforcement official without a legal representative present. Most people think that makes them look guilty – and those doing the questioning will probably even say something like that. Nonetheless, it’s simply the smart thing to do. Whether you’re a completely innocent potential witness or you’ve gotten involved in illegal activity, don’t face any law enforcement authority alone.