When it’s not money, of course. In a recent case, a judge in Florida declared that bitcoin is not money, and therefore that the man who was accused of selling it to an undercover detective who said that he wanted to use it to buy stolen credit card details could not be charged with money laundering. The status of bitcoin – other virtual currencies are available – has been under debate almost since it was first mined, and the fact that different countries, and indeed different judges within those countries, are coming to different decisions is not going to help.
As a magistrate I have great respect for judges (that sounds sarky, but it’s really not – I can imagine how difficult it is to make decisions in isolation rather than in discussion with two colleagues), but I do wonder about the reasoning of that judge in Florida, Teresa Pooler, who said that “bitcoin may have some attributes in common with what we commonly refer to as money, but differ in many important aspects – they are certainly not tangible wealth and cannot be hidden under a mattress like cash and gold bars”. Indeed, but the laundering legislation does not apply only to tangible wealth – it applies to assets and value. I am also slightly baffled by the reasoning of the defence lawyer, that his client did not launder money but simply “sold his own personal property”… to a man who said that he was going to give it to Russians in exchange for stolen credit card details. Now I’m a novice at Florida legislation, but if I, for instance, sell my house in Miami to someone who tells me clearly that he is going to turn it into a crack den and brothel, isn’t that a crime of some sort – if not money laundering?
The Florida decision is simply the latest in a long line of contradictory findings. What is certain is that those who do seek to use bitcoin to move criminal assets will now flock to the Sunshine State, both virtually and in reality.