Bronston v. United States, 409 U.S. 352 (1973)
There is no liability for perjury if a person gives truthful information in responses to questions made under oath, even if the information was intended to mislead the questioner.
As the sole owner of a motion picture company that produced films in Europe, Bronston held bank accounts in several European banks on the company's behalf. At one stage, he held 37 bank accounts in five European countries. When the company filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, Bronston responded to questions asked at a hearing by a creditor's attorney with the statement that he did not have any bank accounts in Swiss banks. He also stated that the company had a bank account in Switzerland for only six months. However, Bronston had held a personal bank account in Switzerland for five years. He was charged with perjury under 18 U.S.C. Section 1621.
The prosecution argued that his statement about the company having a bank account in Switzerland for six months, which was literally true, was actually a misrepresentation because it suggested that he did not ever have any personal bank accounts in Switzerland. The judge instructed the jury that Bronston would be guilty if his statement was false in its context, even if it was literally true. The jury convicted him on this basis.
- Warren Earl Burger (Author)
- Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
- William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
- Harry Andrew Blackmun
- William Orville Douglas
- Thurgood Marshall
- Byron Raymond White
- Potter Stewart
- William Hubbs Rehnquist
Perjury can consist only of a willful statement that the person giving does not believe to be true. It was not disputed that Bronston believed the statement to be true and that it actually was true. The possibility that Bronston intended to mislead with this form of answer is not relevant to the mental state requirement for this crime and should not have been considered by the jury. The creditor's attorney should have required Bronston to provide a more responsive answer and clarify the information. There are many procedural safeguards against false testimony, so perjury statutes should not be interpreted so broadly that they extend to negative implications drawn from statements that are literally true.Case Commentary
This case shows that the prosecutor asking questions has the responsibility to identify a non-responsive answer and try to elicit the information more directly. This rule became well-known during the impeachment proceedings of President Bill Clinton, when he gave non-responsive answers that were not literally false.
U.S. Supreme CourtBronston v. United States, 409 U.S. 352 (1973)
Bronston v. United States
Argued November 15, 1972
Decided January 10, 1973
409 U.S. 352
Federal perjury statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1621, does not reach a witness' answer that is literally true, but unresponsive, even assuming the witness intends to mislead his questioner by the answer, and even assuming the answer is arguably "false by negative implication." A perjury prosecution is not, in our adversary system, the primary safeguard against errant testimony; given the incongruity of an unresponsive answer, it is the questioner's burden to frame his interrogation acutely to elicit the precise information he seeks. Pp. 409 U. S. 357-362.
453 F.2d 555, reversed.
BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.