Why Burning Money Is Illegal in the United States

Person burning dollar note

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If you have money to burn, congratulations—but you'd better not actually set fire to a pile of cash. Burning money is illegal in the United States and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, not to mention fines.

It's also illegal to tear a dollar bill and even flatten a penny under the weight of a locomotive on the railroad tracks.

The laws making defacing and debasing currency a crime have their roots in the federal government's use of precious metals to mint coins. Criminals were known to file down or cut off portions of those coins and keep the slivers for themselves while spending the altered currency.

The odds of being prosecuted under the federal laws that making burning money or defacing coins, however, are fairly slim. First, coins now contain very little precious metals. Second, defacing printed currency in an act of protest is often compared to burning the American flag. That is to say, burning money may be considered protected speech under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

What the Law Says About Burning Money

The section of federal law that makes tearing up or burning money a crime is Title 18, Section 333, which was passed in 1948 and reads:

"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."

What the Law Says About Mutilating Coins

The section of federal law that makes mutilating coins a crime is Title 18, Section 331, which reads:

"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; or 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."

A separate section of Title 18 makes it illegal to "debase" coins minted by the U.S. government, meaning to shave some of the metal off and make the money less valuable. That crime is punishable by fines and up to 10 years in prison.

Prosecutions Are Rare

It's pretty rare for someone to be arrested and charged with defiling or debasing U.S. currency. Even those penny press machines found at arcades and some seashore attractions are in compliance with the law because they're used to create souvenirs and not to debase or shave metal off the coin for profit or fraud.

Perhaps the highest profile case of currency mutilation dates to 1963: An 18-year-old U.S. Marine named Ronald Lee Foster was convicted of whittling away the edges of pennies and spending the 1 cent coins as dimes in vending machines.

Foster was sentenced to a year of probation and $20. But, more seriously, the conviction prevented him from being able to get a gun license. Foster made national news in 2010 when President Barack Obama pardoned him. 

Why Illegal?

So why does the government care if you destroy money if it's technically your property anyway?

Because the Federal Reserve has to replace any money taken out of circulation, and it costs anywhere from about 5.5 cents to make a $1 bill to about 14 cents for a $100 bill. That may not be much per bill, but it adds up if everyone starts burning their money.

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Murse, Tom. "Why Burning Money Is Illegal in the United States." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/is-burning-money-illegal-3367953. Murse, Tom. (2021, February 16). Why Burning Money Is Illegal in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/is-burning-money-illegal-3367953 Murse, Tom. "Why Burning Money Is Illegal in the United States." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/is-burning-money-illegal-3367953 (accessed March 31, 2023).