Can I Be Charged With Using Counterfeit Money If I Didn't Know It Was Fake?

While a criminal conviction for unwittingly using counterfeit cash is unlikely, criminal charges might stick unless you can convince the prosecutor otherwise.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated October 24, 2022

The use, possession, or making of counterfeit currency can violate both federal and state laws and carry stiff penalties. The government takes counterfeiting crimes seriously—because any attempt to introduce counterfeit currency into the stream of commerce has the potential to undermine the security and integrity of the economic system.

This article will primarily discuss the crime and penalties that apply under federal law. If you have questions on related state charges, consult your state's criminal code or an attorney.

Federal Criminal Charges for Counterfeit Money

It's a federal crime to make, use, or possess counterfeit U.S. currency with the intent to defraud. A person charged with counterfeiting U.S. currency can face stiff felony penalties.

In order to convict a defendant of counterfeiting, the prosecutor must prove that:

  • the counterfeit currency looked legitimate enough to deceive an ordinary, unsuspecting person, and
  • the defendant used, made, or possessed the counterfeit current with the intent to defraud another (criminal intent).

The prosecutor must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

(18 U.S.C. §§ 471, 472 (2022).)

What Is Counterfeit Money?

The federal laws cover any "falsely made, forged, counterfeited, or altered obligation or other security of the United States." An obligation or security of the United States typically refers to cash (currency) but may also refer to federal bonds, certificates of deposit, and gold and silver certificates. Counterfeit securities or obligations have been fabricated or altered so as to make another believe they're the real thing.

To prove someone had "counterfeit" cash under federal law, the prosecutor must show that the bogus bills looked similar enough to the authentic currency that they would fool the average person. Trying to pass off poorly photocopied bills likely wouldn't count as counterfeit if an ordinary, unsuspecting person would easily know it's fake due to obvious imperfections. But the counterfeit bills don't need to be so convincing as to pass an expert eye. Altering a genuine bill also counts as counterfeiting, such as someone who tries to pass off a $1 bill as a $10 bill with alterations.

(Even if the money doesn't qualify as "counterfeit," that alone might not get you off the hook. Prosecutors could potentially charge you with theft by deception, fraud, or forgery.)

What If I Didn't Know the Money Was Counterfeit?

A defendant can't be convicted of possessing or using counterfeit currency if they didn't know it was counterfeit. A conviction requires knowledge and intent to defraud another. If a person received the bills through a prior transaction (say getting change back at a store) and then tries to pay for additional goods with the bogus bills, the person doesn't have the required criminal intent for a conviction. But the standard for a conviction is much higher than for an arrest or charges.

While a conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt (near certainty), police need only probable cause (a reasonable belief) that a crime was committed to make an arrest. So if you unwittingly hand a cashier a counterfeit bill, the cashier might call the police. The police could likely arrest you even if you deny knowing the cash was counterfeit. The issue of knowledge and intent might not come up until later, such as during plea negotiations or trial, if charges move forward.

What Are the Federal Penalties for Using, Making, or Possessing Counterfeit Money?

Federal law makes counterfeiting U.S. currency a felony, punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison. This potential 20-year prison sentence applies to possessing, using, or making counterfeit currency with the intent to defraud.

The actual sentence handed down for the crime depends a lot on the defendant's criminal history, the face value of the counterfeit currency, and whether the defendant possessed any devices or technology to make the currency. In addition to prison time, the judge can impose fines up to $250,000 or double the amount of the financial gain or loss resulting from the crime.

(U.S. Sent. Guidelines § 2B5.1 (2022).)

Are There State Penalties for Counterfeiting U.S. Currency?

Yes. States can also punish people who, with the intent to defraud another, use, possess, or make counterfeit currency. A person suspected of these offenses may be charged under a state law criminalizing counterfeit currency or a related crime, such as forgery, fraud, or theft.

State penalties vary greatly from misdemeanors to serious felonies. A state might impose harsher penalties for making or altering bills than it does for possession offenses. The penalties might also depend on the face value of the currency or the value of the items that the defendant obtained or attempted to obtain. Other factors that may increase the sentence include a defendant with a long criminal record (especially for having a history of theft or fraud-related convictions) or a crime involving aggravating circumstances (such as coercing a minor to present the cash to a cashier).

State misdemeanor offenses typically carry up to a year in jail, plus fines. Felony penalties at the state level may range from one to 20 years' prison time depending on the seriousness of the offense and offender.

What Are Common Defenses to Charges for Counterfeit Currency?

A common defense strategy when facing counterfeit currency charges is to poke holes in the prosecutor's case. Defendants might argue that they're not guilty because the currency didn't look legitimate enough to fool anyone, the defendant didn't know the cash was counterfeit, or the defendant didn't have any intent to defraud another.

Speak With an Attorney

Federal and state laws prohibit a variety of activities related to counterfeit currency. A conviction for counterfeiting currency can result in a lengthy prison sentence and a substantial fine. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can evaluate a case's strengths and weaknesses. A lawyer can also seek a dismissal or reduction in the charges, as well as advise you on an effective defense strategy if the case goes to trial.

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