Bitcoin and similar “cryptocurrencies” have been around for years, but Bitcoin is getting a lot more attention than usual in 2017, primarily based on the fact that such currencies have risen in value six times over since the start of the year, and $6.6 billion in digital currencies are now traded daily. This growth in digital currencies is having some effect on mitigating the cloud of controversy that has hung over Bitcoin and similar currencies, which is partly due to the mysterious origins of Bitcoin (for years its inventor remained anonymous) and the frequent use of Bitcoin in criminal transactions. But, as digital currency grows in popularity, more individuals and businesses are justifiably interested in learning more while understandably cautious about the legality.
Digital Currency Usage Is Not Inherently Illegal
Individuals and businesses are permitted to use Bitcoin and other similar currencies, although some states such as New York do impose licensing requirements on certain parties. Under New York State’s recently promulgated BitLicense rules, parties engaged in the following activities are required to obtain a BitLicense from the state if they are conducting business in New York or with people who reside in New York:
- Virtual currency transmission
- Storing, holding, or maintaining custody or control of virtual currency on behalf of others
- Buying and selling virtual currency as a customer business
- Performing exchange services as a customer business
- Controlling, administering, or issuing a virtual currency
Customers and merchants who merely conduct transactions involving digital currency are not required to obtain a license in New York.
Criminal Liability With Bitcoin
The most common situations in the news involving criminal liability for use of Bitcoin and similar currencies is when the currency is used for illegal purposes. Several high-profile individuals have been convicted of crimes in connection with an online marketplace called Silk Road where illegal transactions involving criminal acts for hire, illegal pornography, and drug trafficking were facilitated by use of Bitcoin.
In one case, an entrepreneur who ran a service facilitating Bitcoin transactions pled guilty and served time in federal prison for facilitating the purchase of illegal drugs on Silk Road using Bitcoin. In another case, the founder of Silk Road was sentenced to life in prison for his role in facilitating illegal transactions using Bitcoin, and his trial included evidence of five potential murder-for-hires that he sought out “to protect his burgeoning creation from informants.”
Bitcoin and similar currencies have also been factors in criminal investigations and prosecutions involving fraudulent securities dealings as well as money laundering. Ultimately, many of the same finance-related crimes that can be committed with traditional currency can also be committed with digital currency, although, perhaps ironically given the attraction many of had to the supposed privacy of digital currency, crimes involving digital currency have become easier for law enforcement to investigate in some cases.
When faced with any questions over potential criminal liability for a proposed transaction or one that has already occurred, parties are highly encouraged to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney regarding their situation.