In the Netflix show “Ozark,” there’s suitcases and walls stuffed with drug cash. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “The Wolf of Wall Street” rolls around with his lover in a bed covered in hundreds. Countless music videos feature hip-hop stars hurling greenbacks to the sky.
Of course, none of that cash is actually real.
The faux dollar bills are known as “prop money,’ cash designed to fool the camera, but cartoonish and small enough in person that no one should be able to use them to actually buy anything in real life. Alexander Binker, pulled over for reckless driving in West Kendall, had some prop money labeled “FOR MOTION PICTURE USE ONLY” stuffed in his wallet — left over, he says, from a buddy’s rap video shoot.
Miami-Dade police nevertheless arrested Binker, 20, for possessing counterfeit bills.
Binker’s lawyer is now asking a Miami-Dade judge to dismiss the felony charge, saying that Binker never tried to use the bills to buy anything, and simply having the play cash doesn’t break Florida law. Binker, who returns to court next week, faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
“The only thing counterfeit in this case are the charges,” said George Pallas, his defense lawyer.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has yet to respond to the request to throw out the case. “We are evaluating the evidence,” spokesman Ed Griffith said.
With the ease of buying bogus bills online, the proliferation of prop money is vexing law enforcement. Across the country, police departments have racked up arrests of people trying to buy stuff.
Two teens in Polk County recently got jailed for using $300 in prop money to buy an iPhone. In North Carolina, a man got busted earlier this year for using fake bills to buy a video gaming system from a woman in a Walmart parking lot. Over in Northern California, a ring of high-school students bought prop money online and were using it at local businesses; they did not face charges.
The money can even be purchased on mainstream sites such as Amazon, through third-party sellers, which hawk them for as little as $10 for a stack of 100 $20 bills.
“The Secret Service is working with the United States Attorney’s Office and eCommerce sites to remove these products from their websites,” a Secret Service spokesperson said in a statement to the Miami Herald.
The Secret Service warns that even if you have legal prop money, it’s illegal to try and use it to buy something. So what makes play money legal?
According to federal law, bills qualify as counterfeit if it “looks so much like genuine U.S. currency that it is calculated to deceive an honest, unsuspecting person who uses ordinary observation and care.” Legal prop bills must be more than 1½ the size of real bills, or less than ¾ the size.
“There are many variations of counterfeit currency and or ‘movie prop money’ that the Secret Service receives and is aware of,” the spokesperson said.
Some prop bills are legal. Some aren’t. Many more fall into a blurry gray zone.
One South Florida company, Prop Movie Money, touts itself as the “trusted source for prop money for Hollywood,” and claims it has provided fake cash for popular TV shows such as “Ballers,” “Narcos” and “Better Call Saul.” The company’s bills feature disclaimers: “THIS NOTE IS NOT LEGAL TENDER” and “FOR MOTION PICTURE USE ONLY,” and insists that people on the bills are “designed to resemble fictitious cartoon comic type characters and are dramatically different than the real presidents and characters.”
But within the niche prop money industry, there’s debate over standards.
Rich Rappaport, owner of Atlanta’s RJR Props, says his company is one of the few that works directly with the federal government to ensure the bills comply with the law. He says most companies flout the laws, and take advantage of scant law enforcement.
“Most prop money companies don’t know jack squat about prop money or the laws, and they don’t care if people who buy it get arrested,” Rapport says. “It’s a very big problem.”
RJR Props has provided prop cash to an array of music videos, TV shows such as “Ozark,” and movies such as “Baby Driver,” “The Fast and The Furious,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He says his company’s uses trademarked, custom designs.
“The money looks absolutely real on camera, filmed at 15 inches away or further,” Rappaport said. “However, if a thief tries to use it, when a cashier brings it up close, the optical illusion changes over, revealing it’s prop money.”
For close-ups, the company offers more precise “high-grade” bills — but that are only printed on one side.
Which company manufactured Binker’s bills is unknown.; they remain in police custody.
He and a friend, Sofia Rigal, were arrested in July after being pulled over in West Kendall for speeding and weaving in and out of lanes at 3:30 a.m. A Miami-Dade police officer searched the car and found suspected crack cocaine and marijuana. As the two were handcuffed and being processed, an officer searched his wallet and found the prop bills.
In all, Binker had 32 fake $100 bills and two $50 bills, according to a Miami-Dade police report.
“The thing is, you’re still not supposed to even have this in your wallet,” Officer Leamsi Horta told him, according to body-camera video released as part of the arrest.
Prosecutors declined to press charges for possession of drugs against Binker and Rigal. But against Binker, they did file counts of reckless driving and possession of counterfeit notes, which is a third-degree felony.
Earlier this month, however, Binker’s lawyer filed a motion to dismiss the case.
Florida law, Pallas pointed out, says that someone is guilty of having counterfeit bills if there is an “intent to utter and pass” them off “to injure or defraud any person.”
Pallas says Binker never had any intent to use the money nefariously.
“It’s the opposite of counterfeit money, designed with safeguards so it can’t be passed off as real,” Pallas said. “You couldn’t buy a jar of mayonnaise with that ‘money.’”
Miami Herald staff writer Charles Rabin contributed to this report.