People who lie to government agencies by simply saying “no” to potentially incriminating questions can be convicted of felonies, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
By a 7-2 vote, the court upheld a former New York union official’s conviction for lying to federal investigators who questioned him about taking illegal cash payments.
James Brogan was convicted under a broadly worded federal law that forbids knowingly making “any false, fictitious or fraudulent statements or representations” to the government, even without being under oath.
Some federal appeals courts had limited the law’s reach by creating an exception - known as the “exculpatory no doctrine” - that barred such prosecution for merely denying criminal conduct.
The justices struck down that doctrine, ruling that it goes against the federal law’s plain language and is not required by the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court that the “exculpatory no” doctrine was aimed at preventing overzealous prosecutors from punishing a denial of wrongdoing more severely than the wrongdoing itself.
In a related decision last week, the court allowed government agencies to dole out extra punishment for employees who lie while being investigated for misconduct.
In other action Monday, the court:
Agreed to review the government’s efforts to open the $100 billion local phone market to long-distance companies, but put the dispute on a time track not likely to yield a decision until 1999.
Ruled in a Louisiana case that older workers who believe they were illegally pressured to quit do not necessarily have to give back severance pay before suing for age bias.
Upheld a predominantly Hispanic congressional district in Chicago, rejecting a challenge by a voter who said race improperly was taken into account in drawing boundaries.
Asked the Clinton administration, in the context of a lawsuit from Georgia, whether it thinks educators violate a federal law if they don’t stop students from sexually harassing other students.