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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

District court rules U.S. securities law may cover initial coin offering in criminal case

Securities Courts Initial Coin Offerings Virtual Currency Fraud Securities Exchange Act Fintech

Securities

On September 11, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York issued a ruling that the U.S. government can proceed with a case for purposes of federal criminal law against a New York-based businessman who allegedly made “materially false and fraudulent representations and omissions” connected to virtual currencies/digital tokens backed by investments in real estate and diamonds sold through associated initial coin offerings (ICOs). The defendant—who was charged with conspiracy and two counts of securities fraud for his role in allegedly defrauding investors in two ICOs—claimed that the ICOs at issue were not securities but rather currencies, and that U.S. securities law was unconstitutionally vague as applied to ICOs. However, the U.S. government asserted that the investments made in the tokens were “investment contracts” and thereby “securities” as defined by the Securities Exchange Act. The U.S. government further argued that the jury should apply the central test used by the U.S. Supreme Court in SEC v. W.J. Howey Co. to determine if a financial instrument “constitutes an ‘investment contract’ under the federal securities laws.” The judge commented that “simply labeling an investment opportunity as ‘virtual currency’ or ‘cryptocurrency’ does not transform an investment contract—a security—into a currency.” Moreover, while the judge cautioned that it was too early to determine whether the virtual currencies sold in the ICOs were covered by U.S. securities law, he concluded that a “reasonable jury” may find that the allegations in the indictment support such a finding.

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