US Coins

Legal case continues for 1974-D aluminum cent

This 1974-D Lincoln aluminum cent is the subject of ongoing litigation between two California men and the government.

Image courtesy of PCGS.

Two California men continue their fight to prove that a 1974-D Lincoln aluminum cent in their possession is legal to own. The cent was set to highlight Heritage Auctions’ April 2014 Central States Numismatic Society auction but was withdrawn at the request of the U.S. Mint.

Randall Lawrence and Michael McConnell initially filed a lawsuit in a San Diego federal court on March 14 asking the court to affirm that an example of the experimental cent that the two men owned is not government property and can be legally owned. 

The Mint filed a response on June 3 seeking that the court dismiss the complaint, which was granted on July 23 when a judge ruled that the two men failed to prove that they legally owned the cent. The court allowed Lawrence and McConnell to file a motion for leave to amend the complaint, which they filed on Aug. 21 with a proposed amended complaint attached. 

The Mint’s position has been consistent: because Congress never issued an aluminum cent as legal tender, any example remains property of the federal government regardless of how long it has been in private hands. 

The court initially granted the Mint’s motion to dismiss, specifically noting that the initial filings did not allege “facts surrounding the circumstances under which Plaintiff Lawrence’s father obtained the Aluminum Cent.” 

The proposed amended complaint goes into further detail as to how the men came into possession of the cent, and how Lawrence’s father, Harry Edmond Lawrence, acquired the coin through his service as a Mint employee for approximately 20 years. 

The filing states that before Harry Lawrence’s retirement as assistant superintendent at the Denver Mint in 1980, the Denver Mint commemorated his service in 1979 by “(a) giving him a clock engraved with his name and dates of service and with the ‘hours’ represented by specimens of each of the last 90%-silver coins minted in Denver in 1964, and (b) allowing him to keep certain error coins struck in Denver which he had accumulated, and one specimen of the 1974-D aluminum cent.” The amended complaint further adds that upon Harry Lawrence’s death he gave his son the clock, the error coins and the 1974-D aluminum cent, along with his other personal property. 

In 2013 Randall Lawrence conveyed an interest in the cent to McConnell, a coin dealer. 

Denver aluminum cents? 

More than 1 million 1974 aluminum cents were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, although nearly all were destroyed. In response to the Mint’s position that the Denver Mint aluminum cents were unauthorized, the two men contend, “Regardless of the Mint’s lack of records, the Denver Mint could not have made aluminum cents without a specific order to do so, evidenced by the special delivery of aluminum planchets from Philadelphia.” 

In plain language, the filing states: “The Mint is wrong regarding the manufacture of 1974 aluminum cents in Denver.” To support this it cites a Coin World interview published in a story by Paul Gilkes in the Feb. 17, 2014, issue, with former Denver Mint employee Benito Martinez who said he personally struck fewer than a dozen of these coins as a die setter on aluminum planchets provided by the Philadelphia Mint. Martinez said that these were delivered to the Coining Division Officer of the Denver Mint and the coins were forwarded to the Mint’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. 

A radical argument

The amended complaint states that the government has effectively abandoned any property rights to 1974 aluminum cents, using the example of 19th and early 20th century pattern coins that did not leave the Mint through official channels but are widely collected today. 

It further cited several trial Peace dollars from the collection of former Mint Director Raymond T. Baker that have sold at recent auctions including five at Stack’s Bowers Galleries’ Aug. 6 American Numismatic Association auction that sold for a combined $663,875. 

The filing notes that these were kept by Baker after they were sent to him for examination, were never “issued” as legal tender and not intended to circulate. “Under the Government’s theory, all of these coins would be considered Government property, subject to forfeiture,” the filing states. It adds, “Nevertheless, despite the highly-publicized sales of every one of the above types of coins, and the huge sums being paid for individual specimens, the Government has made no attempt whatsoever to make claim to any of them. Now, after over a century, the Government states, in effect, that none of these coins is legal to own.”

The amended complaint characterizes the government’s position as radical, as it has made “no effort to reclaim or recover any of the thousands of other non-legal tender coins produced by the Mint and, as described above, for some of these coins, even has used the sale and distribution of such coins to generate revenue, curry political favor, and reward Mint personnel.”

In describing the possible broad-ranging consequences of the government prevailing, the filing says that under the theory, the government could have the legal basis to initiate forfeiture proceedings against some of the most valued coins in the numismatic community, predicting “Such a circumstance would be a disaster for numismatists and the public generally.” 

The filing warns: “The Government’s successful claim to Plaintiffs’ aluminum cent would place a cloud over all non-legal tender coins because it would permit future seizures without warning or further justification. Inevitably, fear of such action would cause many important and historic coins to be exported or simply hidden, depriving numismatists and Americans generally of their beauty and educational value.”

Lawrence and McConnell ask the court to declare that they have superior title to the 1974-D aluminum cent over the government.

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