False Statements Must Be Material In Order To Constitute A Crime

2021 IRS tax forms - false statements concept

A Maryland man sentenced to 32 months in prison had his conviction overturned because his false statements in a federal court case did not influence the judge’s decision. The appellate court found that, while the defendant’s conduct wasted public time and resources and distracted officials from their work, there was no evidence that his false statements influenced a government decision-maker.

Filing False IRS Forms Lead to Criminal Indictment

In 2005, Defendant Joseph R. Johnson, Jr. developed an obsession with Andrea Constand, a woman who accused actor Bill Cosby of drugging and raping her. Johnson was convinced Cosby was innocent and wanted to come to the actor’s defense.

In 2015, Johnson pretended to be Constand’s lawyer and hand-delivered a document to the Pennsylvania federal court overseeing a civil lawsuit involving Ms. Constand. The document contained a motion to attach IRS forms that purportedly indicated Ms. Constand failed to pay taxes on an earlier settlement with Cosby.

Constand’s lawyer received an electronic notification of Johnson’s false filing. She contacted the court to advise that she had not filed the document and asked the court to strike it from the docket.

After an extensive FBI inquiry, Johnson was charged with making false statements in a federal court filing and aggravated identity theft. He was convicted and sentenced to 32 months in prison.

On appeal, Johnson claimed that because the false statements were not material, he should not have been convicted. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, finding that because the documents Johnson filed were not material to the outcome of Constand’s lawsuit, he could not be convicted of the crime of making false statements in a federal court filing. And because the conviction for identity theft was based on the conviction for false statements, that charge was also dismissed.

False Statements Must Be Material

Federal law prohibits a person from “knowingly and willfully. . . making any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” in a matter within the jurisdiction of the federal government. To prove a violation of the law, the government must prove: (1) that the defendant made a statement or representation; (2) that the statement or representation was false; (3) that the false statement was made knowingly and willfully; (4) that the statement or representation was material; and (5) that the statement or misrepresentation was made in a matter within the jurisdiction of the federal government. Johnson argued that the government failed to prove its case because the false statement was not material.

What Is Materiality?

For a statement to be material, it must have been capable of influencing a reasonable decision-maker and must have potentially affected the decision. The appellate court noted that, in this case, the trial judge was the only decision-maker. Because there was no evidence that the false statements actually influenced the judge, the statement was not material.

Not every false representation is inherently material. If the false statement could not affect the outcome, it is not material and could not form the basis to convict Johnson of a crime. The trial judge testified that when he learned there was a document Constand’s lawyer did not file, he simply ordered it stricken from the docket. Because the false statement could have influenced the judge, the false statement was not material and could not be used to support his conviction.

The appellate court noted that while Johnson’s statements were a waste of time and resources and distracted court officials from their work, there was no evidence that the false statement impacted the judge’s decision.

Court’s Decision Emphasizes the Need for Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

In its conclusion, the Third Circuit emphasized that the “‘great privilege,’ brought to the United States as a ‘birth-right and inheritance . . . against the approaches of arbitrary power’ demands proof of each element specified by the people. . . constituting a crime sufficient to forfeit liberty” and that “For bad acts to constitute crimes, at trial the government must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt protects innocent people from being convicted and ensures the prosecution is held to the highest standard.

If you have been charged with a crime, you need a lawyer who will fight to protect your rights and force the government to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Hope Lefeber: Vigorous Defense Against Federal Criminal Charges

Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Hope Lefeber has defended people accused of crimes in federal court for over 30 years. She began her career as an enforcement attorney with the United States Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), where she learned first-hand how the government prepares and prosecutes federal criminal cases. Today, she uses that experience to defend people facing federal criminal charges. Ms. Lefeber has routinely been named a SuperLawyer and one of the Top 100 Lawyers by the National Trial Lawyers Association. She will personally handle every detail of your case and is a meticulously prepared and tenacious advocate who is not afraid to fight for her client’s rights.

If you are facing criminal charges, Hope Lefeber can help. To learn more about Hope Lefeber, review her record of success and read testimonials from other people she has helped. Then contact Hope Lefeber today to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your situation.

Categories: Federal Law