Assume the Position

Saturday, January 24, 2004
A Sticky Situation for the USA Network

USA Network promotes new miniseries on dollar bills
Marketplace: Thursday, January 22, 2004
Minnisota Public Radio

Marketplace on Minnesota Public Radio reports:

Cable TV outfit the USA Network has taken the connection between money and advertising to another level: The company is promoting its new miniseries "Traffic" with stickers on dollar bills that are used in transactions at hip venues. USA says the campaign is thematically appropriate because the miniseries is about illegal trafficking -- and the "mighty dollar" is at the root of trafficking. USA Network put 50,000 of the one-dollar bills in circulation in hipster bars in Los Angeles and New York.

While the folks at Asymmetrical Information ponder the utility of advertising on currency, or whether the USA Network might be guilty of illegally defacing US currency, it appears that placing advertisements on US currency is a violation of 18 USC 475 - Imitating obligations or securities; advertisements

Whoever designs, engraves, prints, makes, or executes, or utters, issues, distributes, circulates, or uses any business or professional card, notice, placard, circular, handbill, or advertisement in the likeness or similitude of any obligation or security of the United States issued under or authorized by any Act of Congress or writes, prints, or otherwise impresses upon or attaches to any such instrument, obligation, or security, or any coin of the United States, any business or professional card, notice, or advertisement, or any notice or advertisement whatever, shall be fined under this title.

Since there is no imprisonment authorized by this section, 18 USC 3559 shows this is classified as an infraction, and 18 USC 3571 indicates a maximum fine of $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for organizations.

The question is, would the maximum fine for the USA Network be $10,000, or could the government charge the USA Network with a separate infraction for each of the 50,000 bills with advertising stickers—a $500 million fine?

As to whether defacing US currency is illegal, and if it is, would the USA Network advertisement be an example, the answers are it is and probably not.

18 USC 333 - Mutilation of national bank obligations

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.

Since Section 333 does not classify the crime, a quick look at 18 USC 3559 shows the maximum six-month sentence means this is a Class B misdemeanor, and 18 USC 3571 indicates a maximum fine of $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for organizations "for a Class B or C misdemeanor that does not result in death." (The US Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing is apparently incorrect when it says the maximum fine is $100.)

That seems to pretty much answer the first question. Notice that, unlike the initial idea some people might have that the defacement law would be intended to address fraud or counterfeiting (such as gluing extra zeros on a dollar bill), it's apparently intended to help keep bills in circulation for their expected lifetime, which is about 18 months for the one dollar bill. (Sections 470-514 of the code cover fraudulent manipulation and counterfeiting.)

As to the second question, it depends in part on the adhesive. If it is something like that used on 3M Post-it® Notes then there is no defacement that would make the bill "unfit to be reissued." If, however, it is a strong adhesive like that used on US postage stamps or license plate stickers, then the bills would have to be pulled from circulation and destroyed when they arrived at a Federal Reserve Bank. (There's some chance, probably small, that the novelty might make the bills collectable, which would tend to remove them from circulation, anyway.)

Were prosecution to be considered, I suspect "intent" might pose a hurdle. While "intent" is often used to indicate an action other than "accidental" or "negligent," in Section 333 it seems to clearly mean "motive" — "with intent to render such…[item]… unfit to be reissued" — which USA Networks could, and probably would, deny.

  • Accidentally deface a bill - no crime.
  • Intentionally deface a bill for some purpose other than rendering it unfit for reissue - no crime.
  • Intentionally deface a bill to keep it from being reissued - Class B misdemeanor.
To mean otherwise, the law should probably have been written, "Whoever intentionally mutilates, …etc., any bank bill, …etc., such that it becomes unfit for reissue, shall be fined…"

There is no telling whether the US Secret Service will investigate or attempt to prosecute USA Networks or the advertising agency, but defacing bills has long been a staple of various activists, some of whom have been at least threatened with prosecution.

Atheists who are compelled to blot out the "In God We Trust" motto sometimes worry that they, too, may get in trouble. This July 2000 response by Cliff Walker, editor/publisher of "Positive Atheism," to one of his concerned readers shows more rationalization than rationalism.

I've heard it is illegal to deface coins, but not to mark currency (police do it all the time, and the treasury issued special pens designed to determine if the newfangled bills are fake).

First, the proper use of a standard counterfeit detector pen shouldn't result in any permanent defacement.

Detection pens are easy to use and require no training. A clerk at a cash register simply uses their counterfeit detector pen to put a small mark on the bill. If the bill is counterfeit and the paper is wood-based, the iodine in the pen solution will react with the starch and leave a dark brown or black mark. If the bill is authentic and the paper is fiber-based, there won't be any starch and the pen will not leave a mark. (Although manufacturers of counterfeit detector pens will sometimes add a biodegradable pastel coloring to the iodine solution so that users can easily see which bills they have already screened -- the pastel coloring usually fades within a day or so.)

As to what the police do and how often they do it: 1) the law often exempts the official actions of government agencies, 2) "marked bills" would not normally be marked in a manner obvious enough to consider as defacement since that might interfere with the purpose for which they were marked—in many cases, "marked bills" or "bait money" simply means the serial numbers have been recorded and there are no actual markings placed on the currency, 3) exploding dye packs are designed to mark the robber as well as the currency, and 4) in both cases 2 & 3 any defacement rendering the currency unfit for reissue is moot since those bills would be removed from circulation as evidence.

Prosecuting "Atheist Money" under Section 333 would run into the same "intent" snag as the USA Network advertisement, but their "notice" seems to be just as much in violation of Section 475.

Original content copyright © 2002-2005 Lynxx Pherrett. All rights reserved.