How Long Does It Take To Figure Out If a Ten-Dollar Bill Is Real?

Emory Ellis, who was apparently suspected of trying to pass the world's most perfect counterfeit ten-dollar bill.Steven Senne/AP

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

A few days ago, we reported on the story of Emory Ellis, a homeless man who was arrested for trying to pass a counterfeit bill:

According to his complaint, Ellis, 37, was trying to buy breakfast at Burger King one morning in November 2015 when the cashier asserted that his $10 bill was bogus. Ellis insisted otherwise, and when the cashier wouldn’t budge, Ellis said he would take his $10—all he had to his name—and leave. Instead of returning the bill, restaurant staff called the police. Ellis was arrested and later charged with forgery of a bank note—a crime that can carry a life sentence, according to the complaint.

The arrest triggered a probation violation, and Ellis ended up spending three months in jail. But aside from the obvious, something has been bugging me ever since I read this story: why did it take three months to clear him? I couldn’t find anything beyond what was reported in the original AP story:

He wasn’t released from jail until February 2016, when prosecutors dropped the forgery charge after the Secret Service concluded Ellis’ bill was real, the lawsuit says.

I’ve had banknotes checked before by cashiers. Usually they just run a pink marker across them or something. But even supposing this particular cashier didn’t have a marker, or didn’t care, or was just trying to make trouble, is it really possible that the Boston Police Department couldn’t figure out if the banknote was real within a few minutes? And even if you suppose they couldn’t, this is one of the primary jobs of the Secret Service. It can’t possibly take them three months, can it? Three minutes seems more like it.

Aside from bureaucratic incompetence of one sort or another, the only way this makes sense is if they took the word of a Burger King cashier so seriously that they figured this homeless guy was part of a ring of incredibly sophisticated criminals who make counterfeit bills that are well nigh indistinguishable from the real thing—and who then waste their talent on ten-dollar bills. I assume the Secret Service would refuse to comment on some specious grounds or another, so it’s probably pointless to ask them. But I would sure like to know how the combined efforts of the Boston PD and the Secret Service managed to take three months to figure out that a ten-dollar bill was real.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend