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March 2024

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Question: Is it illegal to burn money?

Written by , Posted in Statutory Law

Answer: Yes. There is actually a law against burning money.  According to Title 18, Section 333 of the United States Code, it is illegal to “mutilate, cut, deface, disfigure, or perforate, or unite or cement together, or do 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.”

While the law does not explicitly mention “burning,” this act clearly fits into the category of mutilation or defacement intended to render the currency unfit for reissue. Thus, burning money in the U.S. could be deemed illegal under this statute, especially if done with the intent to deface or destroy the currency.

It’s unlikely you’ll face consequences if you’re burning a small amount of money in private, but know that technically it’s illegal. Also, there’s a difference between burning a few small bills as a symbolic gesture versus systematically destroying large sums of money. Burning a couple dollars might go unnoticed, but setting hundreds of thousands of Dollars ablaze is much more likely to attract legal scrutiny.
burning money benjamins political protest

Why Is it Illegal?

Burning or otherwise mutilating money is illegal because the government wants to preserve the integrity and stability of the nation’s currency system. There are several key reasons behind why they made laws against burning currency:

  1. Preservation of National Wealth: Currency represents a country’s economic stability and wealth. When money is destroyed, especially in large quantities, it can potentially lead to a loss in the overall monetary supply, affecting the nation’s economy. Although the physical act of burning a small amount of currency might not significantly impact an economy, the legality sets a precedent to prevent more substantial losses. In the past, when only physical money existed, this was a big deal and laws were needed to protect the money supply against nefarious actions by enemy states or in times of revelation or civil war.
  2. Cost of Replacement: Money that is damaged or destroyed needs to be replaced, which incurs a cost. Printing new currency involves significant resources, including materials, labor, and security measures. Laws against mutilating currency help minimize these unnecessary expenses.
  3. Trust in the Currency System: Confidence in the currency system is crucial for its stability. Laws against destroying currency reinforce the idea that the national currency is a protected and valued symbol of the economy. Such legal protections help maintain public and international confidence in the currency’s value and stability.
  4. Prevention of Fraud: We think a BIIIG reason for these laws is to prevent fraud! By making it a crime to mutilate currency, the government can prosecute attempts to alter banknotes to increase their value or to reuse materials from higher denomination notes for counterfeiting purposes.
  5. Cultural and Symbolic Respect: Currency often carries significant cultural and historical symbols. Laws against destroying currency also serve to respect and preserve these symbols, which might represent important national figures, historical events, or national heritage.

As satisfying as it might feel to set your cash aflame, in the U.S. and many other countries, burning money is generally illegal when done with currency that is still in circulation. Engaging in such behavior can result in fines and even imprisonment, especially if done on a large scale or with fraudulent intent.

What About Burning Money for Artistic or Political Statements?

There might be certain artistic or expressive contexts, like a film production or political protest, where burning a small amount of money could potentially be permitted as free speech. It’s advisable to check the laws and regulations in your local area or consult with a legal professional to understand the specifics regarding money burning.

While freedom of expression is protected under the First Amendment in the United States, the law against currency mutilation remains applicable. That said, the government’s interest in prosecuting such cases might weigh the public interest in freedom of expression against the need to maintain the integrity of the currency. In other countries, laws and enforcement will vary, and such acts could be more likely to result in legal consequences, particularly if they’re viewed as damaging to the national economy or disrespectful to national symbols. In other words, in 2024 we’d recommend not setting Rubles on fire in Moscow as an act of protest against Putin’s government.

In Summary

In conclusion, while the act of burning money may be seen by some as a form of expression or protest, it is important to be aware of the legal boundaries within your jurisdiction. Given the potential for fines and imprisonment, those considering such actions should thoroughly understand their local laws and weigh the consequences. We’d recommend consulting with a legal professional can provide clarity and guidance on this complex issue.

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