Can you write on money? Is it against the law to write on money? This debate has been on for a long time. You might think that the topic is a no-brainer. But there is a surprising number of people that believe it is okay—and that they have the right—to do whatever they want with the money after all the money is theirs. Across many demographics, the owners of the dollar bills tend to think, “oh, it’s my money anyway, I should be allowed to write on it.” Some people go as far as thinking that it is within their rights to even tear it or bun it as a protest whenever they deem fit.

So, is it illegal to write or draw on money?

It is, in fact, illegal to deface money, and in this case US dollars to the point that it becomes unusable. As quoted from the Secret Service official website:

“Defacement of currency is a violation of Title 18, Section 333 of the United States Code. Under this provision, 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.”

Of course, there is a loophole in this, because the clause is “with intent to render such item(s) unfit to be reissued,” because it doesn’t say anything about just writing on it. But technically writing is still defacing. Some people may maintain that you have to go all out emblazoning markings all over a dollar bill such that it is unfit for use so that, for example, vending machines cannot recognize it for it to pass as defacing. However, when one person writes on a dollar bill, and other people write of the same dollar bills, it is only a matter of time those small markings morph into something destructive.

The “it’s my money so I can do what I like with it” does not make even the tiniest lick of sense because money by definition is part of a system that makes legal tenders valuable because they are circulated as part of money supply. If everyone thought dollar bills were theirs to use as they liked, we wouldn’t have any money to circulate. Of course, you worked for the money, but it is not yours alone.

To further bolster this argument, during the case between Smith v. Gougen in 1974, the United States Supreme Court had this to say:

A number of examples can be found of statutes enacted by Congress which protect only a peculiarly governmental interest in property otherwise privately owned. Title 18 U.S.C. § 504 prohibits the printing or publishing in actual size or actual color of any United States postage or revenue stamp, or of any obligation or security of the United States. It likewise prohibits the importation of any plates for the purpose of such printing. Title 18 U.S.C § 331 prohibits the alteration of any Federal Reserve note or national bank note, and 18 U.S.C. § 333 prohibits the disfiguring or defacing of any national bank note or coin. Title 18 U.S.C. § 702 prohibits the wearing of a military uniform, any part of such uniform, or anything similar to a military uniform or part thereof without proper authorization. Title 18 U.S.C. s 704 prohibits the unauthorized wearing of service medals. It is not without significance that many of these statutes, though long on the books, have never been judicially construed or even challenged.

While the term “deface” is subject to interpretation, and the Supreme Court has acknowledged that this stature has not gone challenged much and therefore lacks adequate guidance as to what its terms cover. At first glance, the words mutilate, cut, deface, disfigure, perforate, and unite or cement together are straightforward, but the phrase, “does any other thing, with intent to render [the money] unfit to be reissued” is a lot less clear.

The word “intent” has always been a problematic word.

According to Stamp stampede, there is an argument that there are three things you cannot do to a paper currency they include:

  • Adding two zeros to a dollar bill and claiming it is a hundred dollar bill.
  • Changing, burning, shredding or destroying currency, rendering it unfit for circulation.
  • Advertising a business on paper currency.

For example, if you own a coffee shop, you cannot stamp “Have a Joey Drink Day” on a dollar bill. But guys over at Stamp stampede do not think that it is legal to write on the bill. So can you write on money and still use it?

Can you write on money and still use it?

In India, a policy was issued called the Clean Note Policy to help the RBI keep an eye on currency notes in circulation. This policy encouraged the public to desist from writing on bank notes. It also instructed banks to exchange soiled and mutilated notes without restriction, according to India Today. Shreya Biswas of India Today is also of the view that while writing on money is strongly discouraged, it is not unlawful. He claims that there isn’t any such law that tags the act as a punishable offense.

When you consider that while writing on money might not be enough to render it unfit to be reissued, the statute on defacing US money that adds the qualification, “does any other thing” to the Defacing rule makes it a prohibition for the defacement of paper money.

Google’s dictionary of the word defacement is pretty straightforward:

To deface means to spoil the surface or appearance of something.

So, is it illegal to draw on money? Going by this definition, if you draw or write on money, disfigure it or do anything of the sort, then you are liable to be punished for up to six months with fine.

In the United States VS Amidon, 1980, a piece of misdemeanour information charged two counts of mutilating national bank obligations in violation of 18 U.S.C. s. 333. This was the only case where anyone had ever been prosecuted under the defacement statute. The accused pleaded guilty.

The defendant, however, challenged the statute for its constitutionality, alleging that it was a violation of the First Amendment to include the phrase, In God, We Trust on US currency. The Court had this to say, borrowing from the dissenting stance in a Supreme Court case involving Wooley v. Maynard in 1977:

I cannot imagine that the statutes, see 18 U.S.C. ss 331 and 333, proscribing defacement of United States currency impinge upon the First Amendment rights of an atheist. The fact that an atheist carries and uses United States currency does not, in any meaningful sense, convey any affirmation of belief on his part in the motto “In God We Trust.”

The problem with this defacement statute is that the government is not exactly clear with its wordage. While I have harangued readers on the unethical nature of writing on money, there is an interesting aspect of the law, as the penalty for writing on paper money is lax, compared to that 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 shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

This would mean, ironically, that those who deface coins will face harsher punishment than those who mess with paper money. This is laughable considering which denomination cost more and have more value. There is also the clause, “fraudulently” which means that ordinary defacement like those commonplace in everyday usage is not fraudulent. This debate of whether to write on money or not will always be an issue due to government’s lax stance in enforcing this statute.

Can you get into trouble for writing on money?

Perhaps not, perhaps yes, but then again, one could argue that writing on paper money ‘disfigures’ currency, but emergency writing, for example, where there is no other option still passes the key test not to be considered defacement – the intent. Even if a bank still insists written-on money is defaced money, the U.S. Federal Reserve guidelines for banks instruct them also to accept “torn, dirty, limp, worn, or defaced” bills.

The question remains: is it illegal to write on money?

So, perhaps writing on money is not strictly illegal, albeit it being a supposedly benign crime, so let’s just stick to the ethics. I would not encourage anyone to write on dollar notes just for the heck of it. It is in my opinion that defacing US currency is akin to dumping dirt on a sumptuous meal. It translates to a complete lack of value of the dollar bill and what it stands for.

In essence, if you like to scribble so much, best to get a jotter.