I tell my child, as we all tell our children, that lying is wrong. A lot of things are wrong. But does that mean you should go to federal prison? Guess what: that is exactly what can happen if you lie in a federal investigation. What’s more, you might not even know that there’s an investigation! Today’s Wall Street Journal has as the next installment in its serious of the criminalization of America the woeful tale of marine biologist Nancy Black, is facing a $100,000 legal bill and criminal charges for lying, when she didn’t know there was an investigation, and she didn’t believe she was either lying or misleading anyone. In fact she thought she was cooperating with someone from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
How could this be? Here is what 18 USC 1001 has to say:
(a) Except as otherwise provided in this section, whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States, knowingly and willfully—
(1) falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact;
(2) makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or
(3) makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry;
shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years or, if the offense involves international or domestic terrorism (as defined in section 2331), imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both. If the matter relates to an offense under chapter 109A, 109B, 110, or 117, or section 1591, then the term of imprisonment imposed under this section shall be not more than 8 years.
The breadth of this law is staggering, and the results could be perverse. While the jury should have a good view of this, why would anyone not assert their 5th amendment rights when talking to anyone from the federal government? After all, who knows if there’s an investigation? Want to end up with a $100,000 legal bill finding out?
This is a law that prosecutors under administrations of both parties have used. So what should it say? Perhaps there needs to be a tie to a conviction of an actual crime we care about. Perhaps the standard otherwise needs to be such that only sworn statements are applicable, in which case isn’t the existing purgery law enough? And it has the added benefit of putting someone on notice that they could be held accountable for lying.