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Florida state judge rules bitcoin doesn't qualify as money

Tuesday, July 26, 2016 - 10:58
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A Florida judge threw out state money-laundering charges against a man who was accused of illegally selling more than US$1,500 in bitcoins to undercover detectives, concluding the virtual currency doesn't qualify as money.

[MANHATTAN] A Florida judge threw out state money-laundering charges against a man who was accused of illegally selling more than US$1,500 in bitcoins to undercover detectives, concluding the virtual currency doesn't qualify as money.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Teresa Mary Pooler cleared Michell Espinoza in what prosecutors called the first state money-laundering prosecution involving the virtual currency.

"Bitcoin may have some attributes in common with what we commonly refer to as money, but differ in many important aspects," Judge Pooler said in a ruling made public on Monday. "They are certainly not tangible wealth and cannot be hidden under a mattress like cash and gold bars."

Bitcoins and other virtual currencies allow users to spend money anonymously, although the virtual currency can also be bought and sold through regulated services such as CoinBase.

Using the name "Michelhack," Espinoza allegedly sold bitcoin to an undercover detective who claimed to want to use it to pay some Russians for stolen credit cards.

The sales occurred in public places, such as a Nespresso coffee shop in Miami Beach in December 2013 and a Haagen-Dazs store in Miami in 2014, Judge Pooler said.

"We are evaluating the order and will be looking to see if we will appeal the decision," said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office.

Brian Bieber, a lawyer who has represented the Bitcoin Foundation in an unrelated case, said he believes Monday's decision is a first.

"To my knowledge, this is the first ruling of its kind and will most likely set off numerous rulings in other bitcoin cases," he said. "The issue on whether bitcoin is actually money or just a catchy name will be decided ultimately by an appellate court sooner, rather than later now that we have this ruling."

CHARGES CHANGED

While the state originally charged Espinoza with operating an illegal money-services business, prosecutors later changed the charge and accused him of being a "payment instrument seller."

The judge said the case failed because bitcoin and virtual currency are viewed as "property" under Florida state law and don't fall under the definition of a payment instrument.

"His actions fall under a statute that is so vaguely written that even legal professionals have difficulty finding a singular meaning," the judge said.

Florida legislators haven't updated the law to address virtual currencies, she said.

"There was really no state case law at all," said Espinoza's lawyer, Rene Palomino. He said he also searched for bitcoin cases in other states and didn't find any.

The state's case also failed because the undercover buyer didn't tell Espinoza that he was using the proceeds of an illegal transaction to buy the bitcoins, the judge said.

US prosecutors in New York have been successful in winning convictions tied to bitcoins.

In May, the co-founder of Liberty Reserve, which the government called a black-market bank for criminals, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he helped the government prosecute his former partner. 

Trendon Shavers, founder of Bitcoin Savings and Trust, pleaded guilty last year to defrauding people out of US$4.5 million in what the US said was the first-of-its-kind Ponzi scheme tied to the virtual currency.

Ross William Ulbricht was also convicted for running Silk Road, an online bazaar where people anonymously used the digital currency to buy heroin, phony passports and hacking services. He was sentenced to life in prison.

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