Many people assume that it’s illegal to stamp or write on paper currency, but they’re wrong! There are three things that you CANNOT do to paper currency:
- You CANNOT change the denomination — for example, you cannot add to zeros to a one dollar bill and pretend that it’s a one hundred dollar bill. That’s illegal.
- You CANNOT burn, shred, or destroy currency, rendering it unfit for circulation.
- You CANNOT advertise a business on paper currency. For example, if you own a Bagel shop, you cannot stamp “Eat at Joe’s Bagel’s” on a dollar.
But we are putting political messages on the bills, not commercial advertisements. Because we all want these bills to stay in circulation and we’re stamping to send a message about an issue that’s important to us, it’s legal!
You can read a legal opinion from Alan Levine, Esq. a noted constitutional lawyer and professor. You can also read a legal opinion from Stephen Justino, Esq. below.
Scroll down for more info and frequently asked questions.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does the law actually say?
Defacement of U.S. currency is regulated by 18 USC 333, which states:
[W]hoever 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. [Emphasis added]
There’s also a law prohibiting the use of paper money as advertising, 18 USC 475, which states:
[W]hoever . . . writes, prints, or otherwise impresses upon . . . any [coin or currency] of the United States, any business or professional card, notice, or advertisement, or any notice or advertisement whatever, shall be fined under this title. [Emphasis added]
18 USC 333 is written to prohibit the malicious destruction of currency, and 18 USC 475 is written to prevent currency from becoming a vehicle for commercial advertising, like for Burger King. Because we want stamped money to stay in circulation and we’re stamping to express our opinions about a political issue, not to make a profit, we’re good to go. And you can read our lawyer’s legal opinion on the matter here.
Has anyone gotten in trouble for stamping?
Our Head Stamper Ben Cohen has been stamping on national television – CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, etc. – since 2012, and he has shown stamped bills to politicians and government officials as high up as the U.S. president. Many other celebrities, politicians, and public figures have also stamped their money, but Ben has yet to be reprimanded for his stamping and no other stamper has faced legal issues for stamping either. One stamper even took the issue of stamping straight to his local police department to ask them about it, and they politely informed him that it seemed legal and harmless and therefore wasn’t something they’d even consider pursuing. Ultimately the Secret Service is the federal agency tasked with enforcing the laws relevant to stamping money, not the police, and if the Secret Service is watching your behavior then stamping should be the least of your concerns.
Has anyone gotten in trouble for stamping?
31 USC 5103 states: “United States coins and currency (including Federal reserve notes and circulating notes of Federal reserve banks and national banks) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues.” As the U.S. Treasury Department has noted, however, there is no Federal law requiring a business to accept cash as payment:
Private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether or not to accept cash unless there is a State law which says otherwise. For example, a bus line may prohibit payment of fares in pennies or dollar bills. In addition, movie theaters, convenience stores and gas stations may refuse to accept large denomination currency (usually notes above $20) as a matter of policy. (Source)
It’s worth noting that this discusses denominations of currency and cash generally. With that in mind it seems unlikely that stamped bills, which are legal tender, should be treated any differently than unstamped bills. We occasionally hear about local businesses that have policies not to accept any marked currency, usually as a precaution against counterfeiting, but It’s not clear whether or not such a policy is legal. They do appear to be well-intentioned and do not discriminate against stamped bills in particular.
The bank says my stamped money is defaced/mutilated/altered – is it?
No. There is no lawful or practical reason for a bank to refuse stamped currency.
Stamped bills are not defaced. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, currency defacement is generally defined as follows:
Whoever mutilates, cuts, disfigures, perforates, 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, Federal Reserve Bank, or Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such item(s) unfit to be reissued, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both. (Source)
An argument could certainly be made that stamping ‘disfigures’ currency, but stamping still passes the most important test to not be considered defacement – the intent. Even if a bank still insists stamped money is defaced, the U.S. Federal Reserve guidelines for banks instruct them to include “torn, dirty, limp, worn, or defaced” bills in their regular deposits. (Source)
Stamped bills are also self-evidently not mutilated. Think of cash damaged in a fire or rust-encrusted coins, or see the source below for pictured examples. If it’s in good condition and you can tell what denomination it is, you’re good to go. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, mutilated currency is:
Currency that has been damaged to the extent that one-half or less of the note remains, or its condition is such that its value is questionable and special examination by trained experts at the Department of the Treasury or the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is required. (Source)
Some banks may also say that stamped bills are “unlawfully altered,” but this is a confusion between the common definition of altered and the legal definition, which refers to currency whose value has been fraudulently changed, such as changing a $10 bill to a $100 bill. According to the Federal Reserve, if they detect “counterfeit or unlawfully altered currency in an institution’s deposit, it is forwarded to the Secret Service, and the institution is charged for the difference” (Source). Stamped bills do not fit the definition of altered currency, so your bank will not be penalized for depositing them and they should accept them without complaint.