Last week, I saw a penny machine at the San Francisco Zoo. These machines are commonly found at amusement parks and other popular tourist destinations. Basically, for 50 cents, the machine will flatten and emboss your penny with a commemorative design. If you experience a case of buyer’s remorse, you can always unload your pressed penny on eBay.
So, what caught my attention was a statement on the penny press:
U.S. CODE TITLE 18
CHAPTER 17, SECTION 331
Of course, I had to look-up 18 U.S.C. § 331–Mutilation, Diminution, and Falsification of Coins.
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, or sell, or brings into
the United States, any such coin, knowing the same to be altered,
defaced, mutilated, impaired, diminished, falsified, scaled, or
Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five
years, or both.
So, when is the alteration of a coin fraudulent and when is it not? As it turns out, we can turn to the President for a teaching moment on fraudulent coin mutilation. Last December, President Obama pardoned Ronald Lee Foster for mutilating coins in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 331, for which Mr. Foster was fined $20 and sentenced to one year of probation. According to the Washington Post, Mr. Foster had “whittled away the edges of pennies to pass them off as dimes in vending machines” while he was serving as an “18-year-old Marine in 1963.” So, converting pennies into zoo souvenirs is probably legal. However, if you come across a press that converts pennies into dimes, that would be a souvenir that you should not take home with you.
Other Coin-Related Laws and Cases:
5-Cent and One-Cent Coin Regulations. Prohibits exporting 5-cent and one-cent coins of the United States. Better count your parking meter stash before you cross the border. 31 eCFR Part 82.
U.S. v. Sheiner et al., 410 F.2d 337 (1969). Defendants convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 331 for selling “multi-struck” pennies as mint errors.