IRS Mostly Wins Coinbase Summons Fight

The IRS has been battling Coinbase, the United States’ largest cryptocurrency exchange, in a fight to obtain information about individuals who sold Bitcoins during 2013, 2014, and 2015. The IRS issued a summons to Coinbase–basically, an administrative demand for information. Coinbase didn’t respond, so the IRS filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force Coinbase to comply. After the summons was narrowed to just individuals who bought, sold, sent, or received at least $20,000 worth of Bitcoin during those years (but not individuals who only bought and held or who were issued a Form 1099-K), Coinbase still refused to comply. Yesterday, a federal court in San Francisco ruled that Coinbase must (for the most part) comply.

That the IRS won isn’t a surprise. The IRS demonstrated that only 802 returns were filed in 2015 which claimed Bitcoin sales; I prepared 40 such returns so I prepared 5% of all returns that included Bitcoin sales in 2015! The IRS demonstrated there was noncompliance, and they further showed that the Coinbase records would help with tax administration. As for Coinbase’s arguments:

Coinbase argues that the Government committed an abuse of process because it seeks to enforce “a summons that lacks a proper investigative purpose” and “the production of a vast array of documents relating to 14,000 accounts, without any proper foundation.” The Court, however, finds that the Government has met its burden of showing that the Narrowed Summons serves the legitimate investigative purpose of enforcing the tax laws against those who profit from trading in virtual currency. And the information the Court has ordered produced is relevant and no more than necessary to serve that purpose. Coinbase’s novel insistence that it has met its burden to show abuse of process by virtue of the Government having narrowed its summons is unpersuasive. No court has even suggested such a rule, and this Court declines to be the first.

As for the order itself:

Coinbase is ORDERED to produce the following documents for accounts with at least the equivalent of $20,000 in any one transaction type (buy, sell, send, or receive) in any one year during the 2013 to 2015 period: (1) the taxpayer ID number, (2) name, (3) birth date, (3 [sic]) address, (4) records of account activity including transaction logs…, and (5) all periodic statements of account or invoices (or the equivalent).

The IRS asked for records on “Know Your Customer” diligence, agreements regarding third-party access, and correspondence between Coinbase and third party users related to the opening and closing of accounts. The court denied the IRS’s request for those records. The Court explained both the IRS’s reasoning and why that portion of the summons was denied:

At oral argument the Government explained that it included such broad swaths of records in its summons so that it will not need to return to court to ask for them if and when needed. The Court is unpersuaded. Especially where, as here, the Government seeks records for thousands of account holders through a John Doe summons, the courts must ensure that the Government is not collecting thousands and thousands of personal records unnecessarily. Moreover, if the Government later determines that it needs more detailed records on a taxpayer, it can issue the summons directly to the taxpayer or to Coinbase with notice to a named user — a process preferable to a John Doe summons.

Coinbase can appeal this ruling, but they would appear to me to have a very difficult case. The IRS has demonstrated the need, and the law is on their side.

This is not going to be the last effort by the IRS, either. There are other US-based exchanges, and the IRS will likely be calling on them. Additionally, I expect Congress eventually to mandate reporting of cryptocurrency transactions (or the IRS to issue regulations attempting to require such reporting). If you’re an American who used Coinbase and left out some cryptocurrency sales, now is a good time to amend your tax returns.

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