Federal Crimes Blog

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

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding | Nov 09, 2023

18 U.S.C. 331 defines the federal crime of mutilation, diminution, or falsification of United States coins. You could be charged for violating this federal law if you fraudulently deface, mutilate, alter, diminish, impair, scale, or lighten coins.

You can also be criminally charged for defacing or damaging foreign coins that are made or circulated in the U.S., as well as for possessing coins you know are altered, defaced, or mutilated. A conviction carries up to five years in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and a fine.

18 U.S. Code § 331 - Mutilation, Diminution, and Falsification of Coins
18 U.S. Code 331 makes it a federal offense to knowing damage coins minted in the United States.

Most people have seen penny-pressing machines at tourist attractions. While this is technically prohibited under the law, federal prosecution is highly unlikely. The law is designed to cover cases when there is fraudulent intent.

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, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

Notably, all forms of United States currency are protected under federal law, including paper bills and coins. Simply put, Title 18 U.S. Code 331 makes it a federal offense to fraudulently alter, mutilate, or falsify coins in the United States.

These federal laws are designed to ensure the integrity of coins and currency. If you are accused of violating this law or related statutes, you will need experienced legal counsel to have the best chance of a favorable outcome.

Coin Mutilation – Quick Facts

There are some facts you should know about the federal law under 18 U.S. Code 331 regarding mutilation, diminution, and falsification of coins, such as:

  • This law criminalizes several actions related to mutilated or false coinage but generally covers altering and circulating coins. 
  • This law makes it illegal to “alter, deface, mutilate, impair, diminish, falsify, scale, or lighten” any coin minted in the United States.
  • The law also covers any foreign coin used as currency in the United States. 
  • Mutilation occurs when you intentionally damage or deface a coin and reduce the value of the coin, such as scratching, carving, bending, or breaking the coin.
  • Diminution is reducing a coin's value by altering its metal content, such as shaving the edges, drilling a hole, or sanding the surface of a coin.
  • Falsification fraudulently creates counterfeit coins, such as producing incorrect metal content or design alteration.
  • It's also illegal to pass off altered coins as genuine currency, including knowingly distributing altered coins intending to defraud.
  • Possessing coins that you know are altered is also illegal.

What Are the Elements of the Crime?

To convict you of violating Section 331, a federal prosecutor must prove all the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, including:

  • You altered, mutilated, diminished, or falsified minted coins; or
  • You possessed, passed, or sold such coins as legitimate (or attempted), and
  • You did either or both of these acts with fraudulent intent.

What Are the Related Federal Statutes?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 17 Coins and Currency has numerous federal laws related to Section 331 mutilation, diminution, and falsification of coins, such as;

  • 18 U.S.C. 332 – Debasement of coins, alteration of official scales, or embezzlement of metals. This statute prohibits altering gold or silver coins from the U.S. Mint by debasing them or removing some content so the coins weigh less. It also prohibits altering the scales and weights at the U.S. Mint or embezzlement of metals by officers or others.
  • 18 U.S.C. 333 – Mutilation of national bank obligations. This statute prohibits mutilating national bank obligations, such as mutilating, cutting, defacing, disfiguring, perforating, or damaging drafts, notes, or other evidence of debt issued by a national banking association with the intent to render the bill, note, or proof of debt unfit.
  • 18 U.S.C. 334 – Issuance of Federal Reserve or national bank notes. This statute prohibits Federal Reserve agents or employees from unlawfully putting any notes into circulation. 
  • 18 U.S.C. 335 – Circulation of obligations of expired corporations. This statute prohibits directors, officers, or agents of corporations from using notes, checks, drafts, or other securities purporting to be from a corporation with an expired charter.
  • 18 U.S.C. 336 – Issuance of circulating obligations of less than $1. This statute makes it unlawful to issue, cause, air, or pay a note, check, or other token for a sum of less than $1 with the intent to distribute these tokens as money received or used instead of actual money.
  • 18 U.S.C. 337 – Coins as security for loans. Under this law, the Secretary of the Treasury can designate coins published in the Federal Register.

What Are the Penalties?

If convicted of violating section 331, mutilating, diminishing, or falsifying coins, you face the following penalties:

  • A Fine of up to $250,000;
  • Prison time of up to five years, or
  • Both fines and prison.

What Are the Legal Defenses?

The legal defenses in coin mutilation cases will depend on the details of the case. Our federal criminal defense attorneys might be able to use different strategies, as discussed below.  

Maybe we can argue there was a lack of fraudulent intent., which is the key element prosecutors must prove to obtain a conviction. Perhaps we can prove that you had no intention to defraud anyone by your actions.

Maybe we can argue there was no alteration. Suppose the defacing was minor. In that case, we can say that any alleged alteration was due to normal wear and tear or intrinsic flaws in the minted coins.

Maybe we can argue there was a lack of knowledge or possession or that you didn't know the coins had been altered. Maybe we can negotiate a favorable plea agreement with the federal prosecutor. Contact our law firm for a free case evaluation. The Hedding Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding

What Makes Ronald Hedding Uniquely Qualified To Represent You? I've been practicing criminal defense for almost 30 years and have handled thousands of cases, including all types of state and federal sex crime cases. All consultations are discreet and confidential.

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