A person is on the witness stand. He has an adopted child under 18 but no biological kids. He is asked if he is a parent. He says no. Did he commit perjury?

  • 1
    Isn't there an analogy to the Bill Clinton impeachment trial here? Commented Nov 12, 2022 at 13:44

2 Answers 2


In , the offence of perjury is defined at 2C:28-1 of the Code of Criminal Justice

A person is guilty of perjury, a crime of the third degree, if in any official proceeding he makes a false statement under oath or equivalent affirmation, or swears or affirms the truth of a statement previously made, when the statement is material and he does not believe it to be true.

The Code also provides an opportunity for retraction.

Assuming that the statement is material, whether answering "no" is perjury will depend on the witness's understanding of the question and his belief about the truth of the answer.

If we assume that the witness understands the question to be about parentage in general, including by adoption, and if we assume that they know they have an adopted child, the answer "no" would be perjury.

If instead we assume that the witness understood the question to be narrowly about biological parentage, or if they had forgotten at the time of their answer that they had an adopted child, then the answer "no" would not be perjury.

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    "or had forgotten at the time of their answer that they had an adopted child" In this scenario, wouldn't an insanity defense also likely be feasible?
    – Someone
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 23:10
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    @Someone No. The insanity defense involves in inability to distinguish right and wrong, or a belief in delusions that are forcing you to act in a particular way. Mere failure of memory obviates mens rea (i.e. it prevents someone from having the intent necessary to commit the crime), rather than serving as an affirmative defense.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 23:20
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    @someone Say for instance that while dating someone 12 years earlier, he had adopted her infant child for some insurance reason. A year later they broke up and he hasn't heard from her since. "Had forgotten at the time of their answer that they had an adopted child" is not inherently crazy.
    – fectin
    Commented Nov 12, 2022 at 18:00

No, it is not perjury. Analogously, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" (Clinton testimony). In Bronston v. United States, 409 U.S. 352 it was held that

There is no liability for perjury if a person gives truthful information in responses to questions made under oath, even if the information was intended to mislead the questioner

The person posing the question has the duty to ask the precise question, and cannot impose a duty on the witness to guess at the exact intended meaning or ask for clarification. There is a clear definition of "parent" which sees "parent" as a biological relationship, therefore the person interrogating the witness must clarify whether it includes adoptive relations, or whether it includes a terminated legal parent relation ("put up for adoption").

  • Are witnesses allowed to ask for clarification on issues regarding ambiguous or misleading questions? Seeing as it may involve a jail term for them there should be a way for them to address uncertainty
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Nov 12, 2022 at 23:53
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    You could ask, for example, "what definition of parent are you using", or you could testify "to the best of my knowledge, I have fathered no children" or something like that. The main rule is to ask your lawyer how to answer the question. The hypothetical needs more context for example why didn't he give a Bronston-like answer "I have one adopted child"?
    – user6726
    Commented Nov 13, 2022 at 0:21

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