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Mutilation, Diminution, and Falsification of Coins - 18 U.S.C. § 331

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Jun 12, 2023

All forms of currency in the United States, including bills and coins, are protected by federal law. Most people are familiar with the illegal practice of printing counterfeit money, but that isn't the only way to devalue U.S. currency.

Under Title 18 U.S. Code 331, it's a federal crime to fraudulently alter, mutilate, or falsify coins in the United States. These protections under federal law are designed to ensure the integrity of coins and currency.

Mutilation, Diminution, and Falsification of Coins - 18 U.S. Code § 331
18 U.S.C. 331 makes it a federal crime to fraudulently alter, mutilate, or falsify United States coins.

Suppose you violated this federal statute. In that case, you are facing severe penalties. You must retain experienced legal representation to have the best chance of avoiding a criminal conviction or getting a lighter sentence.

18 U.S.C. 331 says, “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, sell, or brings into the United States any such coin, knowing the same to be altered, defaced, mutilated, impaired, diminished, falsified, scaled, or lightened….”

You could face up to five years in the Federal Bureau of Prisons if convicted of this crime. Let's review this federal law in more detail below.

What Does the Law Say?

18 U.S.C. 331 criminalizes numerous actions related to mutilated or false coinage, but these can loosely be placed into two categories: altering coins and circulating altered coins.

Altering Coins 

18 U.S.C. 331 makes it illegal to “alter, deface, mutilate, impair, diminish, falsify, scale, or lighten” any coin minted in the U.S. or any foreign coin being used as currency in the U.S. Examples of this altering include, but are not limited to:

  • Mutilation occurs when a person intentionally damages or defaces a coin, reducing its value. This can include scratching, carving, bending, or breaking the coin.
  • Diminution is the act of reducing a coin's value by removing or altering its metal content. Examples include clipping or shaving the edges of a coin, drilling a hole into the coin, sanding the surface, etc.
  • Falsification involves fraudulently creating counterfeit coins. This can include producing coins with incorrect metal content, altered designs, etc.

Circulating Altered Coins 

In addition to altering coins, passing off altered coins as genuine currency is illegal. This includes knowingly distributing any coins altered in the manner described above with the intent to defraud.

Examples of this crime include selling or exchanging counterfeit coins for goods and services, passing off altered coinage as legal tender, etc. Under this part of the law, even possessing coins you know have been altered can be a prosecutable offense.

To procure a conviction under 18 U.S.C. 331, the prosecution must prove the following beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • You altered, mutilated, diminished, or otherwise falsified minted coins; OR
  • You possessed, passed, or sold such coins as legitimate (or attempted to do so); AND
  • You did either/both of the above with fraudulent intent.

What Are Some Examples?

EXAMPLE 1: In an elaborate marketing scheme to promote his business, Tom takes hundreds of rolls of quarters and runs them through a press to imprint his face and likeness on them, along with the name of his business. For fraudulent reasons, Tom can be charged under 18 U.S.C. 331 for mutilating minted coins.

EXAMPLE 2: Ike takes a bag of pennies and drills tiny holes in each one, taking the drilled-out portions to glean their copper content. He then passes the altered coins off as legal tender at various stores. Ike can be charged under 18 U.S.C. 331, both for diminishing the metal content of the pennies and for circulating coins he knows have been illegally altered with intent to defraud.

Is “Penny Pressing” Illegal?

“Penny pressing” machines, commonly found at tourist attractions, allow customers to insert a penny and have it flattened and imprinted with a design as a souvenir.

Understanding the practices prohibited by 18 U.S.C. 331, people frequently question whether these machines are illegal.

However, remember that fraudulent intent is critical to violating 18 U.S.C. 331. Since these coins are merely being impressed and with no presumption that they can be used as legal tender afterward, they do not violate the law.

What Are the Related Federal Laws?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 17 Coins and Currency has several federal statutes that are related to 18 U.S.C. 331 mutilation, diminution, and falsification of coins, such as the following:

  • 18 U.S.C. 332 – Debasement of coins; alteration of official scales, or embezzlement of metals;
  • 18 U.S.C. 333 – Mutilation of national bank obligations;
  • 18 U.S.C. 334 – Issuance of Federal Reserve or national bank notes;
  • 18 U.S.C. 335 – Circulation of obligations of expired corporations;
  • 18 U.S.C. 336 – Issuance of circulating obligations of less than $1;
  • 18 U.S.C. 337 – Coins as security for loans.

Penalties for Violating 18 U.S.C. 331

A conviction for mutilating, diminishing, or falsifying coins can carry significant penalties. These include:

  • Fines of up to $250,000;
  • Imprisonment for up to five years; or
  • Both fines and imprisonment.

What Are the Defenses for 18 U.S.C. 331?

The defenses in coin mutilation cases largely depend on the circumstances of the case. However, if you're charged under 18 U.S.C. 331, a skilled federal criminal defense attorney may use one or more of the following defenses discussed below.

Defenses for Mutilation of Coins
Contact our federal defense lawyers for help.

Perhaps we can argue there was a lack of fraudulent intent. This is one of the most common defense strategies used in these cases since fraudulent intent is the key element prosecutors must prove and the most challenging element of the crime.

If your attorney can show that you had no intent to defraud anyone by your actions, the charges may be dismissed.

Perhaps we can argue there was no alteration. If the defacing is minor, your attorney may argue that any alleged alteration was due to normal wear and tear or intrinsic flaws in the minted coins.

Perhaps we can argue there was a lack of knowledge or possession. Your attorney may also say you didn't know the coins had been altered.

Suppose your guilt is not in doubt. Perhaps we could negotiate a favorable plea agreement with the federal prosecutor in that case. You can contact us for a case review by phone or using the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California.

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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