What do vice-presidential chief of staff “Scooter” Libby, homemaking guru Martha Stewart, and former housing secretary Henry Cisneros have in common? They were all prosecuted by the federal government for making false statements to government agents. If you googled the above quote, you know that the number of people prosecuted for this crime are beyond counting (well, beyond reading all the search engine matches, anyway.)
Every time I hear about one of these prosecutions, I ask myself: “Why would anybody, anywhere, anytime talk to the FBI?” Of course they want to scare people into telling the truth, but it seems to me that reasonable people might be scared out of talking to them at all.
Title 18 U.S.C. Section 1001 says that if one lies or knowingly conceals any material fact about a matter within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Government, he shall be fined or imprisoned for not more than 5 years.
It also makes it a crime for a government agent to lie to you. Scratch that. In fact, your government applies a far higher moral standard to its citizens than to itself, for law enforcement officers are trained to lie when interviewing suspects. They can lie about what evidence they have or what the evidence will tell them. They can lie about what other witnesses have said. Trust me. It is standard practice.
Under Missouri law, it’s not so one-sided. A man may be convicted of committing a theft, but he won’t be convicted of denying that he did it. He won’t be convicted for saying he doesn’t know anything about it. He won’t be convicted for hiding embarrassing personal facts.
Under Missouri law, lying to the state is a crime only in certain narrow situations. Such as:
- lying for the purpose of helping another person escape prosecution
- making a false statement UNDER OATH, or
- making a false report of a crime or life-threatening emergency.
These situations adequately cover the immediate public harm caused by not telling the government the truth. But these state laws stop short of the police state mentality which demands that citizens cooperate with the government in all things, even to the point of helping the government put them in prison.
The bottom line is that these state laws do not punish a man for denying his own guilt. This is akin to the 5th amendment to the US constitution which insures that no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”
Of course, one should never lie to the authorities, whether they be state or federal. The feds will send you to prison for the lie, even though they could never charge you with any other crime. Even your local police know that the best thing they can get from a suspect is a confession. But the second best thing they can get is a lie. You will not outsmart them. They will never tell you how much they know already.
If the FBI ever showed up wanting to interview me, I should politely, but firmly tell them I would not discuss the matter until I’ve talked to an attorney about it. I can’t get in trouble with that response. After some thought and legal counsel, it may appear that I have no personal criminal exposure. But I can’t make that judgment going into a surprise interview. I may well talk to them later, BUT NOT NOW.
Perhaps if enough people just started refusing to speak to federal government agents–because they feared saying something that could come back to bite them–Congress might have to repeal the law. The agents could then concentrate on solving crimes that have already occurred rather than manufacturing them in the ordinary course of business.
The police want to talk to me. Should I talk to them?
How to Avoid Going to Jail under 18 U.S.C. Section 1001 for Lying to Government Agents (its a long one, but you will be amazed at how wrong people can be in thinking they are innocent and have nothing to hide)