Coins and the Clink

Flying internationally with $10 in pennies in your carry-on isn’t a great idea. Unless you rolled them in coin wrappers, you’d have a thousand different slugs of metal to deal with. Even if you did roll them up, you’d have twenty rods in your bag adding more than five pounds to your load. And if you tried to do this during a brief period in 2007, you could have found your trip diverted — but only for you.

Flying with that many pennies could have landed you in prison.

In late December, 2006, the U.S. Mint recognized that the country’s economy was at risk from an odd threat — there was potentially going to be shortage of pennies and nickels. The prices of copper, zinc, and nickel (the metal, not the coin of the same name) had all spiked. These were the component metals of a penny or a nickel (the coin) and were now worth significantly more than the coins’ face values, and coin holders could, in theory, melt their Abe Lincolns and Thomas Jeffersons and end up with a slight profit. There was some evidence that this theory was about to become a reality, too. The Mint noticed an uptick in inquiries as to whether it was lawful to melt ones coins and resell the recovered metals.

On December 14, 2006, the Mint made the rules clear. On that day, the Mint issued a temporary ban on melting down either type of coin. As the Mint’s director, Ed Moy, said in a statement, “We don’t want to see our pennies and nickels melted down so a few individuals can take advantage of the American taxpayer. Replacing these coins would be an enormous cost to taxpayers.” The punishment for violating the ban was a fine of up to $10,000 (that’s a million pennies) and/or up to five years in prison.

If that’s where the Mint stopped, there’d be not much to talk about — it’s unlikely someone is going to accidentally open up a penny and nickel melting operation, and most anyone doing so at a scale large enough to warrant notice was likely causing the harm the rule hoped to prevent. But the Mint didn’t stop there. It added another wrinkle to the rule, per the Mint’s public statement: “the regulations also prohibit the unlicensed exportation of these coins, except that travelers may take up to $5 in these coins out of the country.” If you travelled outside the country with your kids’ piggy banks during that period, there’s a reasonable chance you were committing a federal offense.

There are no reports of anyone getting caught doing that, though (and let’s face it, it’s unlikely anyone actually walked around, accidentally, with that many small-denomination coins). Regardless, the rule expired 120 days after its issuance. So if you’re traveling internationally, there’s no need to check your loose change beforehand any more.

Bonus Fact: In 2009, the general manager of the Chilean Mint was fired. Why? Because in 2008, the Mint produced a few runs of 50 peso coins with the word “CHILE” on them, which would have been fine — except, as seen here, the “L” was printed as a second “I.”

From the ArchivesFrom Abe to Zinc: The metals behind pennies.

Related: “Three Felonies a Day” by Harvey Silverglate. A book arguing that we unknowingly commit a lot of (petty) felonies each day, and that shouldn’t happen.