Is it illegal to lie to federal agents if you aren’t under oath?

If someone finds federal law enforcement agents or investigators at their home or workplace wanting to ask them questions, they too often speak to them without first getting legal guidance. People often think they can explain things away – regardless of their innocence or culpability.

Unfortunately, they often believe that they don’t have to tell the truth to law enforcement personnel since they aren’t under oath. That’s not correct. If you lie to agents, investigators or prosecutors, you can face legal consequences.

Not all lies are equal

The severity of those consequences depends on the “materiality” of the lie. Federal law states that any “materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” to federal authorities is a crime.

If a person provides less than truthful information about minor details, that likely won’t result in a separate charge. However, if the lies are material to the case and may in fact hinder the investigation, they can expect to face charges for making false statements and even obstruction.

You may remember that Martha Stewart spent time in federal prison after an insider trading scandal. What fewer people remember is that the charges on which she was convicted involved her lies to federal investigators and not the alleged insider trading.

Don’t underestimate how savvy federal agents can be

Remember that federal law enforcement agents and investigators question people for a living. They know how to put people at ease. Particularly in white-collar cases, they often make people think that they’re just sitting down with them to get some background information or clear things up. They can make someone think they just need their help and that they’re focusing their investigation on someone else.

The thing to remember is that you should never talk to a federal (or any) law enforcement official without having a legal representative present. Don’t let law enforcement or prosecutors tell you that makes you look guilty or it will just make things more complicated. You can and should assert your rights. This can protect you from serious legal issues.

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