Federal agents and investigators often approach their questioning differently than state and local police. If someone’s under investigation for a federal offense, they may frame their questioning as a casual, friendly conversation to get the person to open up and admit more than they planned to.
This adeptness at questioning can also lead people to believe they can lie to federal authorities without facing any consequences – especially since they’re not under oath. That can be a serious mistake to make. Ask Martha Stewart.
You may know that the lifestyle guru and hugely successful businesswoman spent time in federal prison. What you may not realize is that although the investigation around her involved insider trading, she was ultimately convicted of offenses related to lying to federal investigators. She’s not alone. Various government and business leaders, including a former governor of Illinois, have been convicted of lying to federal authorities.
Was the lie material?
To be clear, an unintentional misstatement of facts is not enough to get you charged. Likely, neither is a lie about a relatively unimportant detail that doesn’t hamper the investigation. What matters is the “materiality” of the lie. The law applies to any “materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” to federal authorities, whether verbally or in writing.
The consequences aren’t insignificant. A conviction can carry a federal prison term of five years. If the underlying case relates to terrorism, the sentence can be higher.
This is one reason why it’s always advisable to have legal representation when you speak to federal authorities, even if you’re completely innocent of any wrongdoing. Don’t worry that it will make you look guilty – even if that’s what the authorities try to tell you. You can and should protect your rights.