Get Ready for 2017 – These Legal Precedents on Bitcoin Were Set in 2016
2016 saw numerous important court decisions made which affect the Bitcoin industry as a whole. We consulted lawyers and researched the biggest court cases of the year, ranging from whether or not Bitcoin is money to the fate of Ross Ulbricht. Here’s what we’ve found.
Is Bitcoin money?
An age-old Bitcoin question returned to the spotlight in 2016: is Bitcoin money? Indeed, contradictory rulings were levied in relation to whether or not bitcoin is money.
A New York judge decided Bitcoin is money in a high profile case linked to hacking attacks against U.S. multinational financial institution, J.P. Morgan.
U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan rejected Anthony Murgio’s attempt to have two charges dismissed in relation to his operation of Coin.mx, in which the prosecution argued the service represented an unlicensed bitcoin exchange.
Murgio argued bitcoins did not count as “funds” under federal law in a Manhattan courtroom in September. His argument was denied by the court.
“Bitcoins are funds within the plain meaning of that term,” Nathan wrote. “Bitcoins can be accepted as a payment for goods and services or bought directly from an exchange with a bank account. They, therefore, function as pecuniary resources and are used as a medium of exchange and a means of payment.”
A Miami judge, contrarily, dismissed money laundering charges in July. Website designer Michell Espinoza was charged for illegally transmitting $1,500 worth of bitcoins to undercover detectives. The undercover detectives reportedly told Mr. Espinoza that they wanted to buy stolen credit-card numbers.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Teresa Mary Pooler decided in the case that Bitcoin was not fiat currency nor “tangible wealth” and “cannot be hidden under a mattress like cash and gold bars,” reports the Miami-Herald.
She opined in an eight-page order: “The court is not an expert in economics; however, it is very clear, even to someone with limited knowledge in the area, the Bitcoin has a long way to go before it the equivalent of money.”
She wrote that Florida law is currently too vague to apply to Bitcoin. “This court is unwilling to punish a man for selling his property to another when his actions fall under a statute that is so vaguely written that even legal professionals have difficulty finding a singular meaning,” the Miami judge stated.
Moreover, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed House Bill 289 on July 6, thus expanding the state’s Money Transmitter Act to cover activities related to bitcoin and other blockchain tokens.
The law was introduced in 2015, and has received criticism despite being drafted with input from blockchain and digital industry insiders with local regulators.
As lawyer Jason Seibert, who represented Trendon Shavers in the case listed below, explains: “I think the best way to describe Bitcoin is actually as a commodity that can be used as money – just like any other commodity.”
Bitcoin’s First Felon Sentenced
In July, Bitcoin’s so-called “first felon” was sentenced to 18 months. Trendon Shavers, known as pirateat40 in bitcoin forums early on in the cryptocurrency’s existence, was charged in a case tied to his Bitcoin Savings & Trust operation in which many investors lost money.
Having spent lavishly during his illegal fund’s existence, Mr. Shavers could not repay all the lost funds, though he tried – a fact the court took into decision when it came time to sentence the Texas man.
In addition to the eighteen months, Mr. Shavers received penalties such as three years supervised release, a $100 special assessment, $1.2 million in forfeiture and $1.2 million restitution.
IRS Sends Coinbase John Doe Summons
The IRS sent a John Doe Summons to Coinbase, one of the largest Bitcoin exchanges in the industry. The request asked for records from between 2013 through 2015.
Coinbase pledged to fight the request in court. Users of the service filed federal lawsuits in December, aiming to block what they see as the IRS’ overreaching claim.
The case, from the Northern California U.S. District Court, believes numerous persons using Coinbase might have “failed to comply with provisions of the internal revenue laws.” Coinbase is appealing.
Ripple approved for BitLicense in New York State
On June 13, the New York state financial regulation approved Ripple Labs for the first-issued BitLicense.
The company cleared an anti-money laundering, capitalization, consumer protection and cyber-security review, according to the New York State Department of Financial Services.
“DFS is pleased to continue to foster the growth of the New York virtual currency marketplace,” Department of Financial Services Superintendent Maria T. Vullo said in a statement.
Ripple filed for the license under its corporate name XRP II LLC, which has received funding from Andreessen Horowitz, Google Ventures and IDG Capital Partners.
European-regulated Bitcoin product hits the market
The first European-regulated Bitcoin product hit the market over the summer. The Gibraltar Stock Exchange launched a Bitcoin product called BitcoinETI, an asset-backed exchange traded instrument.
BitcoinETI is set to available on regulated brokerages across Europe and that regulation of Bitcoin and fintech in Europe is “more agile” than in the US.
Bitstamp Regulated in Europe
In Late April, major Bitcoin exchange Bitstamp made the announcement it had received a license to operate throughout Europe.
The Luxembourg Ministry of Finance licensed BitStamp to operate as a payment institution with a license that applies to the European Union as a whole.
“With this,” says Dan Morehead, the chairman of Bitstamp and the CEO of Pantera Capital, a firm that specializes in investments related to bitcoin, “Bitstamp is able to do business in all 28 countries of the EU.”
It took Bitstamp about two years to procure the license.
Silk Road Oral Arguments
Silk Road oral arguments were heard in 2016, in which the defense posited that the conviction of Ross Ulbricht for operating the Silk Road was a result of a mistrial.
Citing corruption discovered in the case by lead investigators, the defense wants the conviction dropped citing a mal-investigation, but the judge on the case maintains the evidence proving Mr. Ulbricht’s guilt as overwhelming. Still pending in the court of appeals, with more and more evidence pointing towards corruption of law enforcement officials, it’s not sure whether Mr. Ulbricht will get a chance at a new trial.