Is It Illegal To Write On Money?

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Is it illegal to write on money? It’s a valid question since it is your money and you have the liberty to do anything with it. Technically, it’s not that simple.

According to the United State Supreme Court:

A number of examples can be found in statutes enacted by Congress which protect only a peculiarly governmental interest in property otherwise privately owned. Title 18 U.S.C. § 504 prohibits the printing or publishing in actual size or in the actual color of any United States postage or revenue stamp, or of any obligation or security of the United States. It likewise prohibits the importation of any plates for the purpose of such printing. Title 18 U.S.C § 331 prohibits the alteration of any Federal Reserve note or national bank note, and 18 U.S.C. § 333 prohibits the disfiguring or defacing of any national bank note or coin. Title 18 U.S.C. § 702 prohibits the wearing of a military uniform, any part of such uniform, or anything similar to a military uniform or part thereof without proper authorization. Title 18 U.S.C. s 704 prohibits the unauthorized wearing of service medals. It is not without significance that many of these statutes, though long on the books, have never been judicially construed or even challenged.

Smith v. Goguen, 415 U.S. 566, 595–96, 94 S. Ct. 1242, 1258 (1974).

writing on money

The Supreme Court statute that forbids any changes made to any paper money is as follows:

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.

18 U.S.C. § 333.

The statute actually stops you from doing more than just altering the monetary notes.

If you read it closely, all the terms used in the statute- mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or unites or cements together, are simple and convey a clear meaning. But the next line that follows “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”, is unclear and inconspicuous. The Supreme Court, however, admits that the statute has not attracted many challenges and hence there is not much of a detailed explanation.

money writing

 

The Statute’s Obscurity?

Yes, the statute is unclear on whether you can or cannot write on a bank note, but the line “does any other thing” seems to try and bring every situation under it. The only case that sprang into light where anyone was prosecuted under the above statute was that of a man in California who “pled guilty on March 12, 1979, to misdemeanor information charging two counts of mutilating national bank obligations in violation of 18 U.S.C. s 333.” United States v. Amidon, 627 F.2d 1023, 1024 (9th Cir. 1980). Further information was unavailable on what actions formed “mutilation”.

The alleged plea, challenging the constitutionality of the statute, that it was a violation of the First Amendment to include “In God We Trust” on U.S. Currency. The court borrowed a section of a dissenting opinion from a U.S. Supreme Court case to deny the challenge:

I cannot imagine that the statutes, see 18 U.S.C. ss 331 and 333, proscribing defacement of United States currency impinge upon the First Amendment rights of an atheist. The fact that an atheist carries and uses United States currency does not, in any meaningful sense, convey any affirmation of belief on his part in the motto “In God We Trust.”

Wooley v. Maynard, 430 US 705, 722, 97 S. Ct. 1428, 1439 (1977).

The explanation may go on for as long a water and electricity bill, but the point is- Yes, it is illegal to write on money!


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