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A new U.K. bill is set to give local authorities powers to freeze and confiscate crypto assets tied to crime if approved later this year.
Policy watchers say the bill could help prevent tainted assets from being moved before seizures in criminal cases, and possibly even contribute millions to public funding.
The U.K. is making it easier for cops to chase down crypto linked to crime with a new bill set to be finalized later this year – which policy watchers say could mean faster asset freezes and even some hefty contributions to the country's public purse.
The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, set to be enacted later this year, would give local courts and law enforcement agencies new powers to help freeze crypto they believe was used to launder money, traffic drugs, commit cybercrime and terrorism.
Although local authorities have already seized hundreds of millions worth of crypto linked to crime, the bill could help block the movement of targeted assets faster by scrapping some legal hurdles – including requiring an arrest or conviction before cops can seize tainted crypto in criminal cases.
In time-sensitive criminal investigations, a quick freeze order could be a game-changer.
"This new bill enabling law enforcement to recover crypto assets in this way will be a powerful tool, and it is anticipated we will see a substantial increase in digital assets being recovered," Louise Abbott, partner at Keystone Law told CoinDesk in a statement.
What's in the bill
Provisions in the bill allow crypto linked to criminal activities to be seized and recovered under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
Right now, tainted crypto assets cannot be seized in criminal proceedings unless there is an arrest or conviction, which experts say could allow criminals to move targeted assets before cops can get court approval to freeze them. The new crime bill removes the arrest requirement and lets courts order the confiscation of assets before an arrest is made. Though assets can be frozen to prevent movement, they still can't technically be seized from suspects until an arrest or conviction has been made.
The change is a plus, according to Phil Ariss, director of U.K. public sector relations at TRM Labs.
"One area this will be used is on occasions where assets have been identified, significant links to criminality can be proven, but the subject of the investigation is unlikely to face justice in the U.K. – think of those committing fraud outside of the U.K. and targeting U.K. residents," said Ariss, who was crypto lead at the U.K. National Police Chiefs' Council cybercrime unit and is on sabbatical from the U.K. police force.
New civil forfeiture powers under the bill also let crypto linked to crime be seized irrespective of whether a person is convicted of criminal offenses in ongoing investigations or proceedings. Funds can be seized pursuant to court proceedings, the bill said.
"The creation of a crypto asset specific civil forfeiture power will mitigate the risk posed by those that cannot be prosecuted but use their funds to further criminality or for terrorist purposes," a government factsheet said.
Time is of the essence
Not having to wait for an arrest to freeze crypto can cut delays in enforcement work and prevent funds from being moved – something that can be done quickly in the case of crypto.
"Time is of the essence," Ariss said. "I'm sure there have been instances worldwide where delays have caused law enforcement to lose the assets because the subject, a third party, has moved the assets."
U.K. cops have already seized millions of pounds worth of crypto. The New Scientist reported in 2022 that police officers had seized more than £300 million ($371 million) in crypto tied to illegal activity. Around £180 million ($223 million) in cryptocurrency was seized in 2021 by London's Metropolitan Police.
But the new powers under the bill could improve those numbers, said Isabella Chase, senior policy adviser at TRM Labs.
Data from the National Crime Agency estimated illicit crypto transactions linked to the U.K. at around £1.24 billion ($1.53 billion) in 2021.
"So, you know, that's a decent amount that we can go after," said Isabella Chase, senior policy adviser at blockchain analytics firm TRM Labs.
It's likely that much of the crypto seized and successfully recovered by law enforcement will help fund crime fighting, according to Chase.
"It would go either to the law enforcement agency that seized the assets or to fund economic crime work. And then half of it goes to the Home Office again solely to fight economic crime work which is really important," Chase said.
Fighting crime is expensive, and U.K. cops have previously asked for more funding to help tackle crypto-related crime. The U.K. plans to contribute some £100 million ($124 million) to fight economic crime as part of a three-year plan, which is nearly 50% more than what was spent in 2020 – but won't be enough, according to Chase.
"That still won't be enough to pay for all the data capability and the law enforcement capability that the U.K. needs to have a really robust system to fight financial crime," said Chase, adding that the new seizure powers "could be really positive" in helping go after more millions in crime proceeds.
However, if the U.K. gets better at seizing crypto "they might find that the pool of available targets quickly dwindles as suspected criminals move their assets offshore to less enthusiastically policed jurisdictions," Nick Barnard, partner at law firm Corker Binning said.