On July 25th, a Miami-Dade County judge delivered what is believed to be the first verdict in the country involving bitcoin in a money-laundering case. The defendant, Michell Espinoza, was arrested in 2014 and charged with illegally transmitting and laundering bitcoins. However, the charges were dismissed following the court’s determination that bitcoin cannot be considered “money” under the relevant Florida statutes. The interpretations of “financial transaction” and “monetary instruments” played a pivotal role in the outcome. Judge Pooler ultimately determined that bitcoin was not “tangible wealth” and therefore didn’t fall under the definitions of a “financial transaction” and “monetary instruments.”
However, Judge Pooler did leave the door open to bitcoin being deemed money in the future. She expressed that the state legislature should move to address the question. She also stated “Bitcoin has a long way to go before it the equivalent of money” as it lacks backing from any government or banking institution. This point is echoed by many others who have expressed doubt whether bitcoin can be classified as a currency as it currently lacks a reliable medium of exchange and its high volatility makes it an unreliable method for storing value.
However, the ruling in Florida v. Espinoza that bitcoin isn’t money may be at odds with other recent decisions. The magistrate in SEC v. Shaver recently found the defendant guilty of operating a Ponzi scheme, dismissing the defendant’s arguments that bitcoin was not money and therefore not the subject of SEC regulations. Many other cases involve the use of bitcoin for illegal or illicit purposes. However, many of those decisions hinged on whether to underlying activity was illegal, not whether or not bitcoin was money. Ultimately, these decisions represent cases of first impression in many jurisdictions, inconsistencies across jurisdictions are likely to continue until legislatures address the issue.
Adding to the confusion, different organizations consider bitcoin to be different things. The IRS considers bitcoin to be property, not a currency. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission believes that bitcoin is a commodity, not a currency. It remains to be seen if states will adopt new legislation to address bitcoin’s status as money. However, until legislatures and courts take further action, bitcoin is likely to remain “property” instead of “money” in the eyes of the IRS and many courts.