Making a false statement to the United States government is a criminal offense. Lying to a federal agent can be grounds for prosecution under Title 18, United States Code, Section 1001.
It is a common mistake to deny involvement in a criminal offense during an interview with a federal agent. Making a false claim of innocence can result in its own criminal charges.
Federal law establishes a possible penalty of 5 years in prison for making a false statement to the federal government or its agents:
(a) Except as otherwise provided in this section, whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States, knowingly and willfully-
(1) falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact;
(2) makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or
(3) makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry;
shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years…
See 18 USC 1001.
The statute applies to written and oral statements. It does not matter whether the statement was recorded (although the absence of a recording would enable the defendant to argue in trial that the statement never happened).
It is irrelevant whether the person took an oath to tell the truth. Statements that are not sworn under penalties of perjury can still be the basis of prosecution. However, if the statement was made under oath, then federal perjury charges would apply.
Law enforcement officers have procedure to follow when questioning a suspect. The Supreme Court has established that the 5th Amendment to the constitution gives suspects the right to remain silent.
This is the 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. When a person asserts this right to remain silent, he is ‘pleading the fifth.’
If the police are questioning a suspect who is in custody and the questions are likely to elicit incriminating responses, the police must warn that person in advance in order to use the incriminating responses as evidence in court. Note that the suspect must be in custody for these rules to apply. If the person is free to leave, then the privilege against self-incrimination does not apply. The notion is that the person is not being compelled if he is free to leave.
A person who is in custody must be warned pursuant to Miranda that he has a right to remain silent and that anything he says can and will be used against him. This is known as ‘reading the defendant his rights’ or Mirandizing the suspect.
(Additionally, a suspect in custody must be advised that he has the right to an attorney. This is the 6th Amendment right to counsel.)
Given the protections of the privilege against self-incrimination, it would seem that a person subjected to interrogation could say he is innocent. This is not the case.
The Supreme Court has determined that the 5th Amendment does not allow a suspect to falsely deny his guilt of a criminal offense. See Brogan v. US, 522 U.S. 398, (1998). The privilege against self-incrimination allows a defendant to refuse to answer questions from the police. It also protects a person from being compelled to testify against himself in court.
But where the person begins talking, the 5th Amendment no longer applies. Falsely denying guilt of a crime to federal investigators can be prosecuted under 18 USC 1001.
Federal law does not support the exculpatory no doctrine. This means that when federal agents ask a suspect if he was involved in a crime, he cannot falsely say ‘no’ in an attempt to exculpate himself (eg, prove his innocence).
However, 18 USC 1001 does not apply to a criminal defendant or his counsel in court. Therefore, at the arraignment, where the federal judge or magistrate advises the defendant of the nature of the offense and potential penalties and asks the defendant, ‘How do you plead?’, it is not a crime for a guilty defendant to plead not guilty.