Dear Straight Dope:
Is it illegal to put a hole through a quarter to put a string through it and wear it or sell it? Is that considered defacing government property? Is there a law about that?
SDStaff Mac replies:
Bermuda999 kindly gave us the legal citation:
TITLE 18— CRIMES AND CRIMINAL PROCEDURE
PART I— CRIMES
CHAPTER 17— COINS AND CURRENCY
Sec. 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;
Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
(June 25, 1948, ch. 645, 62 Stat. 700; July 16, 1951, ch. 226, Sec. 1, 65 Stat. 121; Sept. 13, 1994, Pub. L. 103-322, title XXXIII, Sec. 330016(1)(I), 108 Stat. 2147.)”
The critical word here is “fraudulently.” And the critical feature is someone trying to make money off the coins at the expense of the government.
Back when money was actually made of precious metals, the government used to get quite irate if you messed with coinage. People wanted the stuff to be worth, in silver, about what its face value was. But silver is a soft metal, so the coins would wear down fairly rapidly. This meant that the mints were constantly taking in underweight coin, and replacing it with full weight stuff, an expensive process. This was made a hell of a lot worse when spikes in silver prices came along, and the metal in the coin became more valuable than its face value. Unless the value of the coinage was allowed to float upward, people would, left to their own devices, starting melting coins down for the silver … which the Treasury would then have to replace, at a cost greater than the coin’s monetary value.
Today the coin’s intrinsic value is much less than face value, and the gummint cares a lot less about people messing with them.
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