The Federal statute against false statements at 18 U.S.C. 1001 seems to ban almost any lie that gets reported to the executive or judicial branch (the legislative branch is treated more narrowly).

Example: Mary, a private citizen, lies to Jane, a private citizen. Jane believes Mary. Mary has no idea that Jane is going to contact an executive branch agency and does not ask her to. Jane reports the content of Mary's statement to an executive branch agency. Therefore, Mary is guilty. And, if Jane was not sure whether to believe Mary, both might be guilty.

Even if Mary and Jane only met in a private apartment house lobby and never saw each other before or after, Mary's lie was that a pterodactyl landed on her shoulder and gave her the keys to a new car, Jane reported on the pterodactyl to the National Park Service, and a Park Service ranger, using official office space and time, told her that pterodactyls have been extinct since before the first human was born, it was against the law for Mary to say what she said about a pterodactyl with car keys.

To make a starker example: The statute says "whoever . . . falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact . . . shall be . . . imprisoned . . . .". Joe and Bob are standing on opposite sides of a state boundary. Joe tries to rob Bob at knife-point. Bob has money but it's in a pocket and thus Joe cannot see it. Joe believes that Bob has nothing and leaves. Bob reports the robbery attempt to the FBI (which has interstate jurisdiction) and the FBI questions Joe. Joe reports that he wanted to rob Bob but that he (Joe) couldn't see that Bob had money. Both are guilty: Joe for attempting a robbery and Bob for concealing from the intended robber that he (Bob) had money. At sentencing, Joe, under one state's law, for attempting the robbery, could get 4 years, while Bob, under Federal law, for concealing money from the intended robber and thus discouraging the robbery, could get 5.

By the way, had Bob carried his money openly in his hand and had Joe succeeded in robbing him, Bob would have been innocent and Joe the robber could have gotten 7 years, so the nation could have exacted less in total punishment for the successful robbery than for the awful crime of stuffing one's own money into one's own pocket and thereby foiling a robbery. Clearly, public policy favors robbery, and if Bob gets robbed he should rob Harry, who should rob me, just for starters.

If I try to imagine how to live daily life so as to conform to this statute, I don't know where to begin.

Seriously, what struck me about the statute is that it does not specify to whom the false statement must be made for it to violate the law. Usually, perjury statutes I've seen say that you can't lie to a government agency or officer or on a form you submit to a government agency. Section 1001 doesn't say that, even though it has been litigated and amended. Has the Federal judiciary confined the statute's reach? It may be Draconian and it may never have been enforced to this degree, but I don't think it's unconstitutional. For example, I wouldn't call it vague or overbroad.

Possibly of interest: When is it illegal to lie?


The key in this statute is that it penalizes knowingly making false statements

in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States

Relevant case law on this statute is US v. Yermian, 468 U.S. 63, where Yermian lied on an employment application, in connection with a security clearance. Defendant lied to the security officer interviewing him, and that lie was eventually submitted to the Dept. of Defense. He was later convicted of violating 18 USC 1001. His defense was that he did not know that his lie was in a matter within the jurisdiction of the executive branch. A little-discussed problem in this case is that he had seen forms with "Department of Defense" on them and knew that the job involved processing "secret" information, so his knowledge falls into the "should have known" category. But this detail merely a footnote in the ruling.

The court finds that "Both the plain language and the legislative history establish that proof of actual knowledge of federal agency jurisdiction is not required under 1001".

The court pointed out that the "federal matter" part of the law

is a jurisdictional requirement. Its primary purpose is to identify the factor that makes the false statement an appropriate subject for federal concern. Jurisdictional language need not contain the same culpability requirement as other elements of the offense

In other words, lying is a crime, and 1001 asserts federal jurisdiction in a subset of lies.

There is a tangential question as to whether crazy statements can support a conviction for a false statements, either 1001 or perjury. The statute requires that the false statement to be materially false, that is, false in an way that is important to the case. The crazy statement made by Mary in this scenario is not materially false. Also, in order for there to be a conviction on this charge, there has to be a federal "matter". There is no statutory definition of "matter", which is a somewhat vague term that refers to a legal issue or administrative or judicial proceeding. If the ranger is investigating a crime then false statements about the crime are "in a federal matter", but if the ranger is ordering a cheese burger for lunch and is told that they are out of cheese (the chef wants to save the last slice for himself) that is not a federal matter.

The Yermian court addresses defendant's proposition that this law

becomes a "trap for the unwary," imposing criminal sanctions on "wholly innocent conduct."

The court's response is that the law is what it is, and Congress has the power to pass such a law. It also has the power to amend the law, if there is sufficient political reason to do so.

  • I should've tightened my Mary example for materiality. I assume "matter" is broadly defined. Mr. Yermian had multiple instances of notice that the Executive Branch would get his false statements. But if knew-or-should-have-known hadn't applied, would he still have been guilty? By the statutory language, since it doesn't seem to matter who received the lie first, I think so. (Also, Joe and Bob's event would definitely be Federal and material.) – Nick Jun 5 '20 at 19:09

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