For Feds, ‘Lying’ Is a Handy Charge
When federal prosecutors can’t muster enough evidence to bring charges against a person suspected of a crime, they can still use a controversial law to get a conviction anyway: They charge the person with lying.
The law against lying—known in legal circles simply as “1001”—makes it a crime to knowingly make a material false statement in matters of federal jurisdiction. Critics across the political spectrum argue that 1001, a widely used statute in the federal criminal code, is open to abuse. It is charged hundreds of times a year, according to court records and interviews with lawyers and legal scholars.
Thanks to a far-reaching federal statute, marine biologist and orca expert Nancy Black is facing a potential 20-year prison sentence for her work. Clare Major reports from Monterey, Calif.
Nancy Black, a marine biologist and operator of whale-watching boats, recently became ensnared by 1001. When one of her boat captains whistled at a humpback whale that approached the boat a few years ago, regulators investigated whether the incident constituted harassment of a whale, which is illegal.
This past January, Ms. Black was charged in the case—not with whale harassment, but with lying about the incident. She also faces a charge of illegally altering a video of the whale encounter, as well as unrelated allegations involving whale blubber. Together, the charges carry up to 20 years in prison.
She denies all wrongdoing, including lying. “I wasn’t charged with anything about the dealings with the humpback,” says Ms. Black, 49 years old. “So why would they charge me with lying about it? It makes no sense.”
The law against lying, officially Title 18, section 1001 of the United States Code, is “a bread-and-butter” statute for Justice Department prosecutors, says Thomas O’Brien, the former U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles. The law’s breadth makes it useful for nabbing wrongdoers, particularly in cases where suspected crimes are complex and tough to prove, he says.
For instance, supporters of 1001 say, the law can be useful in financial or accounting-fraud cases where catching a suspect in a lie that could carry a prison sentence can be a powerful tool for enlisting that person’s cooperation in unraveling the broader crime.
As the U.S. federal criminal code has grown increasingly large and complicated, critics from the left and right alike argue it is becoming too easy for Americans to unwittingly commit crimes.
Nobody argues that telling a falsehood to Uncle Sam is either wise or admirable, but some say 1001 is overly broad. “There is no statute out there that’s more pernicious,” says Stephen Saltzburg, a former senior Justice Department official and now a law professor at George Washington University.
He says the law is so vague that harmless misstatements can be turned into federal felonies. A person can be charged even if the lie didn’t really fool anyone, or if the person didn’t know the criminal consequences of fibbing, some critics point out.
By contrast, Mr. O’Brien says that in his experience local authorities rarely prosecute someone for lying, and when they do it is generally treated as a misdemeanor