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Make Your Own Currency, Spend 5 Years in Jail

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. | Last updated on

What can you buy with a BerkShare? How about a Bay Buck?

Anything, apparently. A number of cities across the country have founded their own private currencies -- two of which go by the names above. The goal is to keep money in the community and encourage local spending.

The exchange rates are pretty friendly, too.

But is it legal? Can you make your own currency?

If it's a joke amongst friends, you're probably fine. But if you plan to circulate the private currency, you might want to give it a second thought.

Just last year, the Justice Department won a conviction in the case of Bernard von NotHaus. He circulated a private currency known as the Liberty Dollar, which took the form of a coin.

Under 18 U.S. § 486, it's a criminal offense to make or pass any metal coins "intended for use as current money, whether in the resemblance of coins of the United States or of foreign countries, or of original design."

An offense is punishable with up to 5 years in prison, a fine, or both.

This prohibition arguably applies to paper money as well. Article 1, section 8, clause 5 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to coin money and regulate its value. The Justice Department believes this gives the federal government the "concurrent power to restrain the circulation of [private] money."

If true, it is arguably illegal for you to make your own currency and set it free upon the world.

As for why these cities have been allowed to circulate private currency, it might have something to do with their local nature. Plus, many of them function as scrip, vouchers and large systems of barter -- they're not actual currencies.

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