Federal prosecutors using the USA Patriot Act to go after unlicensed money-transmitting businesses are unconstitutionally transforming the offense from an infraction of states’ licensing regulations into a federal felony, criminal defense lawyers allege.

Defense attorneys claim that if the government can build a series of successful prosecutions against people who run unlicensed mom-and-pop “Western Union” businesses, its reach could extend to nonprofits, religious groups and other charitable institutions that collect and distribute money.