“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Oscar Wilde

Making False Statements

18 U.S.C.§ 1001 makes it a crime to lie to a federal agent or agency. In particular, this law bans three types of lies: (1) hiding a material act; (2) making a false statement; and (3) using a false writing.  United States v. Rodriguez-Rios, 14 F.3d 1040, 1044 (5th Cir. 1994). Prosecutors use this law in a variety of ways.

For example, making a false statement includes:

  • Lying on a federal loan application;
  • Faking a marriage to become a citizen;
  • Lying to customs agents about transporting money; and
  • Falsely denying guilt.

But how does this law work? What are the penalties for lying to the feds? And are there defenses to this crime? This post will provide answers to these questions.

What is an 18 USC § 1001 false statements?

The law makes it a crime for anyone to knowingly and willfully make a false or fraudulent statement in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the government of the United States.

Below are the lists of facts the government must prove to convict a person of lying to the feds:

18 USC § 1001 False Statements

No.Facts necessary to convict a person of lying to the Feds
1.The defendant made a false statement to a federal agent or federal agency;
2.The defendant made the statement knowing it was false;
3.The statement was material; and
4.The defendant made the false statement willfully for the purpose of misleading either the federal agency or federal agent.
Each of these facts must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

What are the penalties for making a false statement to a federal agent under 18 USC § 1001?

18 USC § 1001 Penalties

False Statement PenaltiesFine Possible
0-5 years

or

0-8 years if

(a) case involves domestic or
international terrorism;

or

(b) case relates to sex offender crimes.
Yes.
Range of Punishment for making a False Statement.

What makes a false statement “material”?

A statement is “material” if it has a natural tendency to influence, or is capable of influencing a decision of the federal agency or federal agent.  However, actual influence or reliance by a federal agency or agent is not required.  United States v. Richardson, 676 F.3d 491, 505 (5th Cir. 2012).  The standard is whether the misrepresentation is capable of influencing the decision.  United States v. Puente, 982 F.2d 156, 159 (5th Cir. 1993).

In addition, the purpose of the “materiality” element is to make sure that the reach of Section 1001 is confined to reasonable bounds and not allowed to embrace trivial falsehoods.  United States v. Ilhsan Elashyi, 554 F.3d 480, 497 (5th Cir. 2008).

In summary, the following two questions help determine if a statement is material. First, what statement did the defendant make? Second, what decision was the agent or agency trying to make? If the statement is capable of influencing that government decision, then the statement is material. See Richardson, 676 F.3d at 505. But, if the statement is not capable of influencing that decision, then the statement is not material. And consequently, a person is not guilty of lying to the feds. This is true even if the statement is false.

Are there defenses to a False Statements Prosecution?

Yes.  A solid defense strategy is to challenge the elements of the crime. We just mentioned one option. For instance, a statement can be false. But if the statement is not “material,” then the government cannot prove the defendant gave a false statement. 

In addition, there are other defenses. First, a defendant can argue he answered a vague question. Second, he can argue that his answer was true.  See Bronston v. United States, 409 U.S. 352, 362 (1973) (reversing perjury conviction for statement that was both true, but misleading); United States v. Ricard, 922 F.3d 639, 652 (5th Cir. 2019) (stating fundamentally ambiguous questions and literal truth are defenses to a false statement prosecution). Third, a defendant may be able to raise a statute of limitations defense. Next, let’s consider each of these defenses and see how they work.

How to make an ambiguity or literal truth defense?

The ambiguity and literal truth defenses are different sides of the same coin. Notably, the ambiguity defense focuses on the vagueness of the question. While, the literal truth defense focuses on the vagueness of the answer.

To illustrate this point, let’s consider the explanation below:

The ambiguity defense asserts that a prosecution under [18 U.S.C. Section] 1001 “cannot be based on an ambiguous question where the response may be literally and factually correct.”  When reporting requirements are ambiguous, for instance, the defendant may proffer evidence of ambiguity and thus shift the burden to the government to “negate any reasonable interpretations that would make the defendant’s statements factually correct.  The government can counter an ambiguity defense by: (i) establishing beyond a reasonable doubt what the defendant meant by the allegedly false statement, thereby eliminating any ambiguity, or (ii) proving beyond a reasonable doubt the falsity of any reasonable interpretation  that would make the defendant’s statement factually correct….

Relatedly, a statement that is literally true is “a complete defense to a [S]ection 1001 charge” in some jurisdictions, even if the statement “had an especially strong tendency to be misleading.” . . .Unlike the ambiguity defense, “where the focus is on the ambiguity of the question asked,” the literal truth defense focuses on “ambiguity in the response.”

David Favre, Madeline Cane & James Hockel, False Statements And False Claims, 57 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 727,739-745 (2020) (listing and discussing defenses to false statements prosecutions); see also United States v. Moses, 94 F.3d 182, 183 (5th Cir. 1996) (reversing  an 18 USC Section 1001 false statements conviction where answer was misleading but true).

What is the statute of limitations defense for making a false statement?

Finally, the statute of limitations defense creates a deadline for the government to file charges. If the government files charges after the deadline, then a defendant can assert this defense. See Smith v. United, 568 U.S. 106, 112 (2013); see also United States v. Gremillon-Stoval, 397 F. Supp. 798, 799 (U.S. Dist. Ct. La. 2005) (dismissing portion of indictment that falls outside of the statute of limitations).

San Antonio False Statements Criminal Defense Attorney

In summary, the 18 USC § 1001 False Statements law makes it a crime to lie to the feds. And this crime carries a serious risk of jail time. However, there are defenses available to this charge. And the facts of your case will help you pick your best defense(s).

Genaro R. Cortez

Phone: 210-733-7575

Law Office of Genaro R. Cortez, P.L.L.C.

730 West Hildebrand Avenue
Suite 2,
San Antonio, Texas 78212
Phone: 210-733-7575
Fax: 210-733-7578
Email: genaro.cortez@cortezlawyer.org