Identity Theft as Rationale for Tax Evasion

Identity theft has long impeded the orderly administration of America's taxation system.

Now the inevitable has occurred -- claimed fears of identity theft have been proffered by tax evaders as an excuse for not filing tax returns.

The American system of taxation is based upon self-assessment through taxpayers' voluntary compliance in filing their tax returns, a task quite distasteful, but far preferable and less oppressive than the sovereign's treatment of taxpayers in other systems of taxation.  As noted by Supreme Court Justice John Harlan over a century ago in Boske v. Comingore, "The interests of persons compelled, under the revenue laws, to furnish information as to their private business affairs would often be seriously affected if the disclosures so made were not properly guarded." 

Modern information technology and the ubiquitous uses of the Social Security Number as an identity parameter have made Justice Harlan's words all the more poignant.

A December 2013 ruling by the Idaho State Tax Commission, recently posted on its website (the Commission delays public postings of its determinations for four months after it mails the determinations to the taxpayer), sustained the taxes and penalties assessed against the taxpayers (or, more accurately, non-payers) who cited fears of identity theft as the reasons for not filing their state income tax returns.

While no reputable attorney, accountant, or other tax advisor would tender such advice to his or her clients, the thought has surely occurred to many if not most of us, in light of the public and Congressional attention the IRS's identity theft problems have garnered.

The facts behind the Idaho Tax Commission's ruling carry broader implications on a national scale.  Because taxation is so universally despised, those intended to be subjected to taxation are ever quick to rationalize their noncompliance.  The dynamics of "monkey see, monkey do" operate quite robustly and rampantly in the world of taxation protests.

Dysfunctions of the taxation system have brought down regimes as diverse as those in ancient Egypt, the French monarchy, and the British Raj in India.  Indeed, the term "Tea Party" refers to a tax protest event in Boston that materially contributed to the unrest that shook the American Colonies free of British rule.  Broken taxation systems carry great risk of violent breaches in domestic tranquility.

The IRS and the state taxation authorities need to give the public good assurances that personal information in the tax collector's hands is secure from identity thieves.  Compromises of personal information security by IRS employees have made this difficult.  ObamaCare's co-opting of the healthcare system into the taxation system has made such credible assurances all the more elusive.

Kenneth H. Ryesky is an attorney who is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Queens College of the City University of New York.