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Q: Is it illegal to destroy American currency? ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Is it illegal to destroy American currency?
Category: Reference, Education and News > General Reference
Asked by: wulph-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 16 Oct 2002 10:29 PDT
Expires: 15 Nov 2002 09:29 PST
Question ID: 77334
Is it illegal to destroy American currency?  It is my impression that
it is only illegal to modify currency and try to pass it fraudulently.
 Please provide links to official documentation on this issue.
Subject: Re: Is it illegal to destroy American currency?
Answered By: expertlaw-ga on 16 Oct 2002 16:16 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Dear wulph,

You are correct, that the only criminal statute regulating the
destruction or defacement of U.S. currency requires fraudulent intent.
The statute itself is broader than simply banning the fraudulent
modification or attempt to pass defaced currency:

Title 18 United States Code, Section 331

Whoever fraudulently alters, defaces, mutilates, impairs, diminishes,
falsifies, scales, or lightens any of the coins coined at the mints of
the United States, or any foreign coins which are by law made current
or are in actual use or circulation as money within the United States;

Whoever fraudulently possesses, passes, utters, publishes, or sells,
or attempts to pass, utter, publish, or sell, or brings into the
United States, any such coin, knowing the same to be altered, defaced,
mutilated, impaired, diminished, falsified, scaled, or lightened -

Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five
years, or both

This statute can be found online on Cornell Law School's Legal
Information Institute website:

The statute is also available on the website of the United States Mint
(where they emphasize the word "fraudulently".

There are, however, intellectual property factors which must also be
considered, if the currency is modified instead of being destroyed.
The United States Mint owns, by assignment, the design of several
commemorative designs. The statute authorizing this ownership by
assignment, 17 USC 105, is also found on Cornell Law School's Legal
Information Institute website:

An official summary of the law governing the alteration, destruction,
or use of United States currency in advertising, may be found on the
United States Mint website's Business Awareness section:

Research strategy:

I started by looking up the statute on Cornell Law School's Legal
Information Institute website, Title 18 (Crimes and Criminal
Procedure), search term "mutilated coins":

I then searched Google for the specific statute, "18 USC 331" ("USC"
being the standard abbreviation of "United States Code"):

I verified the results through a subscription service, Westlaw, using
the United States Code library (This is a paid site. You can purchase
a subscription, or access its databases on a fee per search basis):

I hope you find this helpful,

- expertlaw

Request for Answer Clarification by wulph-ga on 16 Oct 2002 18:07 PDT
Thank you for the clear and well-documented answer.  The USC passage
references coins; does the same hold true for federal reserve notes
(paper currency)?

Clarification of Answer by expertlaw-ga on 17 Oct 2002 09:28 PDT
Dear wulph,

My apologies. You are correct, that my answer spoke to coinage but not
to paper currency. There is a separate statute addressing paper
currency, 18 USC 333:

Title 18 United States Code, Section 333

Mutilation of national bank obligations 

Whoever mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or unites
or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft,
note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking
association, or Federal Reserve bank, or the Federal Reserve System,
with intent to render such bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence
of debt unfit to be reissued, shall be fined under this title or
imprisoned not more than six months, or both.


This statute can also be found online on Cornell Law School's Legal
Information Institute website:

The only excuse I can provide for missing this statute the first time
around is that it appears to be rarely cited, and does not appear to
have any associated regulatory provisions in the Code of Federal
Regulations (CFR). Feeble, yes - I should have caught it the first
time around.

The United States Code, Annotated, has only one case law annotation
for this statute, Keese v. Zerbst, 88 F.2d 795 (C.C.A. Kan., 1937),
certiorari denied 57 S.Ct. 933 (1937). That case involved a person who
was convicted of a forgery offense, and attempted to argue that he
should only have been convicted of defacing currency. "Certiorari
denied" indicates that the United States Supreme Court refused to hear
the case, and allowed the Kansas court decision to stand.

Note that this is also an intent-based crime. An element of the
offense is "...intent to render such [currency] unfit to be reissued."
As there does not appear to be any case law interpreting this statute,
and there is nothing on point in the CFR, it is difficult to say how
this would be applied by the courts if the defendant intended to
destroy the currency but had no specific regard for his acts' effect
on the ability of the Federal Reserve System's ability to reissue the
note. Given that intent requirement, it seems unlikely that a
prosecution would be possible if the primary purpose of the
destruction of the currency was a speech act (e.g, protesting
government action by publicly burning currency).

The official spin on this statute is provided on the Bureau of
Engraving and Printing website:

That site indicates that defacement of currency rendering it unfit for
circulation comes under the jurisdiction of the United States Secret

Research strategy:
Google search for "defacing currency"

Thank you for the opportunity to clarify the answer. I hope you find
this helpful,

- expertlaw
wulph-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
Clear, well-documented answer. Quick attention to clarification
request. Excellent explanation of unfamiliar (to the layperson) terms.
Thank you.

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