NEWS:   A Pennsylvania borough rejected a man’s attempt to pay a $25 parking fine in pennies, but they cited outdated federal regulations in doing so.

One of the maxims we repeat, by necessity, on a regular basis is that “in the news” is not the same thing as “true.” News articles often report things that are not true, and/or repeat things other people have said that are not true.

A case in point was a recent news report about a man in Pennsylvania’s Chambersburg township who was aggravated over a parking ticket he’d received and attempted to pay the $25 fine with 2,500 pennies. According to that news report, a township official refused to accept his payment and cited a “federal regulation” stating that pennies were not legal tender in quantities greater than 25:

A Shippensburg handyman slapped with a parking fine in Chambersburg tried and failed to enact his revenge by paying with 2,500 pennies.

Irked by the $25 ticket he found on his work truck, Justin Greene said he went straight back to his Shippensburg home to retrieve the pennies that were rolled in coin wrappers. When he plopped the coins down on a Chambersburg borough office counter, he was rebuffed. Borough officials cited a federal regulation — a notice Greene argued was well-hidden among other material on the board.

[Borough Finance Director Jason] Cohen said a sign posted in the borough office reads, “Federal law specifies pennies and nickels as small change and not legal tender for debts in excess of 25 cents.”

Cohen added Greene could have paid in quarters and dimes instead and the borough would have to accept them as payment.

This report prompted readers to inform us that our article on this topic (i.e., our debunking of the notion that pennies are not legal tender over a certain amount) was “wrong” and should be corrected.

Knowing that our article was in fact correct, we scanned the original news report to see if it specified exactly which “federal regulation” had been cited as disallowing payment in pennies in quantities greater than 25. In fact, it did:

Jason Cohen said he spoke with Greene that day and pointed out federal regulation Code 31 U.S. Code annotated, Sections 317 and 460.

Attemping to verify that citation quickly proved problematic, as Title 31 of the U.S. Code no longer has sections numbered 317 or 460 — those sections have been repealed or supplanted by newer regulations.

It appeared that Mr. Cohen was working from some very old information. As our article about pennies as legal tender notes, it’s true that up until the late 19th century, pennies and nickels weren’t considered legal tender at all — it wasn’t until the 1870s that they were designated as such by law, and then only for debts of up to 25 cents. However, that status changed fifty years ago, with the passage of the Coinage Act of 1965 which specified that all U.S. coins are legal tender in any amount. The governing regulation is now 31 U.S. Code § 5103, which states:

United States coins and currency (including Federal reserve notes and circulating notes of Federal reserve banks and national banks) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues.

Someone apparently informed Chambersburg officials of this, as a follow-up news report noted that they had acknowledged their error in “relying on an outdated policy”:

Pennies are no longer taboo as a form of payment at the Borough of Chambersburg office. Coin-counting equipment will be installed in “the next few weeks” after a man tried to pay with pennies in protesting of a parking fine and his money was refused.

In a statement issued in response to the resulting “public uproar” over the matter, Jeffrey Stonehill, borough manager, acknowledged that borough personnel relied on an outdated policy when they refused 2,500 pennies as payment from Shippensburg handyman Justin Greene, who was angry about a $25 fine he received.

The furor stems from a ticket Greene received in Chambersburg on Aug. 7 for parking on the wrong side of Sixth Street while he retrieved tools from a house where he had been working. Irked by the enforcement for what he considered a harmless infraction and by the amount of the penalty, Greene visited Chambersburg’s borough office with 2,500 pennies wrapped in coin rolls.

Borough Finance Director Jason Cohen subsequently refused the pennies as a form of payment, pointing to a policy posted on the wall that said pennies are not “legal tender” for payments in excess of 25 cents.

Both Stonehill and Assistant Borough Solicitor Sam Wiser responded to Public Opinion reports of the flap with explanations that the policy was outdated and based on federal law that had since been repealed.