Forfeit Your Bitcoin? Congressional Bill Draws Fire Over Border Check Rules

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A group of US lawmakers wants to see cryptocurrency holdings declared at the nation’s border – and advocates of the tech are pushing back.

Introduced last month, the Combating Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Counterfeiting Act of 2017 – which is actually the third iteration of a bill that debuted in 2011 – would bring a range of digital currency services under federal scrutiny, including those that provide transaction mixing services.

Yet, the provision that has attracted the particular ire of cryptocurrency advocates – especially those who prefer a regulation-light environment – is one that would make such holdings subject to disclosure requirements at US customs checkpoints. This means if a person trying to enter the country has more than $10,000 worth of bitcoin in their possession, under the proposed legal change, they would need to inform the relevant authorities.

Such requirements are already in place for payment methods like cash. But given the rising public profile of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, coupled with the perception among policymakers that they could be used to fund terrorist activities, is driving legislative efforts like the bill currently under consideration.

One observer, Joe Ciccolo of Canada-based BitAML, remarked that cryptocurrency has become the “new face in an old debate”, going on to say that policymakers and law enforcement officials have long sought to expand the definition of what constitutes a “monetary instrument”.

Ciccolo told CoinDesk:

“Earlier this decade, we saw a push to include ‘prepaid access’ such as gift cards. Law enforcement went so far as to pursue card readers to scan prepaid access devices for their balance. Now that digital currencies have gained traction, they’ve been included in the same conversation. As in the past, I suspect there will be strong opposition from across the financial services community.”

Perianne Boring, president of the Chamber of Digital Commerce, a blockchain trade advocacy organization, said the legislation is “not necessary” given the existence of regulations from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which require exchanges services to register as money transmission businesses and adhere to federal reporting requirements.

“While we encourage thoughtful and meaningful study of the prevention of cross-border financial crime, the storage of virtual currency carries different and complex considerations than those attributable to prepaid access,” she told CoinDesk.

Asset grab

It’s clear from the response that the frustration toward the measure isn’t going anywhere. That anger surfaced in earnest over the past week or so in social media postings and fiery blog entries about the move.

One of the points of concern is a policy called ‘civil asset forfeiture’. In the US, law enforcement officials have faced strong opposition to the rules, by which assets, particularly cash, can be seized if they are suspected of being connected to criminal activity. Proponents say it deters money laundering and – controversially – provides a funding means for police forces in the US.

Under the proposed bill, cryptocurrencies would be included in that definition, subject to confiscation by border agents.

The practice has drawn fire in recent years over instances in which innocent people have their funds taken from them, triggering legal processes that can play out for months or longer before any money is returned.

In one high-profile example in 2015, a US man had $16,000 in cash taken from him while he tried to relocate to Hollywood despite the fact that he wasn’t suspected of a specific crime. And data published earlier this month by the Chicago Tribune illustrated how the policy tends to target lower-income residents who, if anything, are guilty of crimes of lower severity, if at all.

Investor and writer Simon Black, who pens the Sovereign Man blog, took aim at this aspect of the bill by declaring that, in the eyes of the US government, “bitcoin is evil” and should be up for grabs by border agents.

“So, theoretically if you leave the US with more than $10,000 in bitcoin or ether, you’d have to confess this fact to the authorities or otherwise face the aforementioned penalties, ie prison time, civil asset forfeiture, etc,” Black wrote.

“HOORAY FREEDOM!” he added.

Fighting on

Thus far, the bill hasn’t advanced significantly since being introduced last month, public records show. On 25th May, the measure was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further consideration.

At press time, representatives for Senators Chuck Grassley and Diane Feinstein hadn’t responded to CoinDesk requests for comment. The bill is also being sponsored by Senators John Cornyn and Sheldon Whitehouse, constituting a group of two Republicans and two Democrats.

But at least one person is moving to wage a war against the bill’s provisions: Theo Chino, who as profiled by CoinDesk last November, has waged a persistent campaign against the New York State Department of Financial Services BitLicense regulatory framework.

He told CoinDesk in an email that he has set up a webpage with the relevant contact information for the senators who are sponsoring the bill. Chino himself has been reaching out to offices in an effort to educate lawmakers on what he described as “misunderstandings of the technology”.

“This ‘over-criminalization’ of bitcoin, based on common misunderstandings of the technology and its economic nature should be worrisome to the bitcoin and technology communities,” he told CoinDesk.

The two main advocacy groups in Washington, DC – the Chamber of Digital Commerce and Coin Center – are said to be in contact with the relevant Congressional offices. Though it declined to comment on this story, Coin Center indicated on Twitter that it’s reaching out amid the furor.

“We are aware of S 1241, are in touch with the relevant folks in Congress, and will post an analysis soon,” executive director Jerry Brito wrote on Twitter.

Chino – who in an email called the bill a “sham” – spoke to the grassroots effort taking place, and said that he’s still reaching out to people who have posted on Reddit as part of a broader bid to get constituents to contact the senators involved.

“One call from a constituent has so much impact,” he said.

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