Having federal agents show up at your home or office is a highly stressful experience. Even if they say they just want to ask you a few questions or “have a chat” and don’t appear to be accusing you of any wrongdoing, it’s natural to be anxious. Nonetheless, anything you say can have serious repercussions – especially if it’s not the truth.
Just because you’re not under oath, that doesn’t mean you can’t face criminal charges for lying to federal officers or investigators. Even if you weren’t involved in a crime yourself, if you lie about someone else who’s under investigation, you could potentially face a number of federal charges.
Under federal law, if someone is found guilty of lying to any representative of the federal government, they can be sentenced to up to five years behind bars. The sentence can be longer if it involves a terrorism investigation.
The Martha Stewart case and materiality
People often forget that lifestyle doyenne Martha Stewart served time in federal prison not for securities fraud, which is what she was initially investigated for. She was convicted of obstruction, conspiracy and lying to federal investigators.
Not every lie to a federal agent is going to get you charged with a federal crime. If you lie about something that’s largely irrelevant or simply make a misstatement when talking to investigators, that’s probably not going to be a problem. However, under federal law, someone who “knowingly and willfully … makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation,” is committing a crime.
If you find yourself being questioned by federal authorities (or any law enforcement officers) or even suspect that you’re under investigation, it’s wise to get experienced legal guidance. This can help you better assert your rights and help protect you from making the situation worse.