That was the ruling today out of a federal court in the Northern District of California authorizing the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to serve a “John Doe” summons on Coinbase requesting the identities of United States Coinbase customers who transferred convertible virtual currency from 2013 to 2015. Coinbase, which is headquartered in San Francisco, California, is a company which facilitates transactions of digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) had made the request earlier this month (California Northern District Court, Case No. 3:16-cv-06658-JSC) on behalf of the IRS since a “John Doe” summons can only be served by the IRS with federal court approval. A “John Doe” summons is an order that does not specifically identify the person but rather identifies a person or ascertainable group or class by their activities. In the past, that’s included investors in a particular tax shelter or account holders at a defined financial institution: the IRS has made use of the procedure, for example, when seeking information about offshore accounts those related to the UBS investigation.
In granting the motion, Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley found that “[b]ased upon a review of the Petition and supporting documents, the Court has determined that the “John Doe” summons to Coinbase, Inc. relates to the investigation of an ascertainable group or class of persons, that there is a reasonable basis for believing that such group or class of persons has failed or may have failed to comply with any provision of any internal revenue laws, and that the information sought to be obtained from the examination of the records or testimony (and the identities of the persons with respect to whose liability the summons is issued) are not readily available from other sources.”
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Caroline D. Ciraolo, head of the Justice Department’s Tax Division, said about the ruling, “As the use of virtual currencies has grown exponentially, some have raised questions about tax compliance. Tools like the John Doe summons authorized today send the clear message to U.S. taxpayers that whatever form of currency they use – bitcoin or traditional dollars and cents – we will work to ensure that they are fully reporting their income and paying their fair share of taxes.”
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen echoed that sentiment, saying, “Transactions in virtual currency are taxable just like those in any other property. The John Doe summons is a step designed to help the IRS ensure people doing business in the emerging economy are following the tax laws and meeting their responsibilities.”
The initial request was triggered, according to court documents, after the IRS found instances of tax evasion involving Coinbase customers. To clarify, it has not been alleged by authorities that Coinbase had any knowledge that any of its users might be involved in tax evasion.