Sovereign citizens in the United States number about 300,000 adherents, of which a third are viewed as “hard core.”
Sovereign citizens are anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in the United States, they are separate or “sovereign” from the country. As a result, they believe they don’t have to answer to any government authority, including courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments, or law enforcement. According to the FBI, who investigates cases related to the groups, “Not every action taken in the name of the sovereign citizen ideology is a crime, but the list of illegal actions committed by these groups, cells, and individuals is extensive.” The FBI lists them among the nation’s top domestic terror threats.
In the past several years, sovereign citizens have been involved in criminal activities nationwide with great frequency. Some sovereigns were involved with attacks against government officials (e.g., law enforcement, judges, prosecutors and tax authorities), undertaking fraudulent transactions and issuing fictitious instruments, carrying out financial fraud, creating counterfeit currency, impersonating officers and diplomats and engaging in tax evasion, among other unlawful acts.
Here, I discuss the Sovereign group’s ideology, the perceived benefits of being a sovereign, a profile of the movement’s structure and characteristics of its membership, sovereign citizen tactics and activities, where these individuals operate and selected responses to the extremist elements of this movement.
Current sovereign ideology is spawned, in part, from varied doctrines, embracing extremist elements of diverse groups, including: anti-tax protesters, militias, Christian Identity and Posse Comitatus. Noteworthy, though, a significant segment of sovereigns do not follow any religious doctrine as part of their sovereign stance.
There is no unanimity regarding the ideology of sovereign citizens, although most believe in the illegitimacy of government, and autonomy in relation to government regulation (e.g., no need to pay taxes, obtain licenses, or pay fees). Most believe that the current U.S. government (“de facto”) was formed in 19th century through a usurpation of the “de jure” natural law government. More specifically, in their view, the 13th Amendment, which emancipated the slaves, concurrently created a special form of citizenship.
Presently, the government is perceived as forcing U.S.-based residents to obtain birth certificates, Social Security numbers and pay taxes so that a formal, subservient relationship is established between the governments and its subjects. Sovereign citizen adherents attempt to break the bind between the government and themselves by refusing to participate in government activities and formally renouncing their citizenship, filing documents with courts and offices of the secretary of state to that effect, along with failing to pay taxes, obtain driver’s licenses, and other federal, state and locally-imposed requirements. Under federal law, an individual may formally relinquish his citizenship by declaring as such at an overseas embassy or consulate, although sovereigns rarely do so.
Some sovereigns view that the state has no authority over them unless the sovereign citizen makes an outward overture to be within the rubric of the “illegitimate” government system. While trying to distance themselves from the state and its instrumentalities, sovereigns also create a nexus with the state by filing bogus documents and multiple lawsuits seeking large amounts of damages. The wrath of such suits, sometimes referred to as “paper terrorism,” may include police officers, judges, county clerks, or others who the sovereign views treated them unfairly. The resources required to deal with these suits can be quite burdensome to the victim. Additionally, sovereigns may file documents and forms with respective state secretaries of states seeking to have apostilles (documents issued by the state that signify that the certain documents were filed with the state) generated.
Another precept shared by sovereigns is redemption. In 1933, the U.S. government left the gold standard. In doing so, sovereigns argue, that U.S. currency became worthless, and necessitated the government to use persons (citizens) as collateral to conduct international trade and cover sovereign debts.
The process of issuing birth certificates and Social Security cards, sovereigns believe, enables the U.S. government to create credits for itself, while also establishing accounts worth several hundred thousand dollars to millions of dollars that sovereigns can access at one point. Such “U.S. Treasury Direct Accounts,” are created in the names of third parties, or “Strawman,” which the sovereign will ultimately access.
Sovereigns believe they can access a strawman account by filing documents with the Department of Treasury. Subsequently, the sovereign informs creditors of its debts (e.g., mortgages that the sovereign obtained) that payment for the loan will be made by the Department of Treasury, and then submits fraudulent financial instruments (e.g., fraudulent bonds or bills of exchange) to its creditor.
Additionally, sovereigns often use Uniform Commercial Code forms in an attempt to legitimize fraudulent commercial transactions. Such pseudo-legal activities aim to create a veneer of legitimacy to transactions that are clearly fraudulent and without basis or accord with economic realities.
Other components of sovereign citizen ideology include the belief that lawyers are not deemed citizens. They came to this stance from an unsuccessful constitutional amendment to prohibit persons with nobility (often lawyers) to possess citizenship. Likewise, sovereign believe that government officials, particularly, police officers, must sign an “Oath of Office,” dictating their duties. Also, to some sovereigns, admiralty/maritime law has a special merit in the legal realm. As such, sovereigns tend to file baseless maritime liens quite expansively against their opponents.
In sum, sovereigns believe that federal, state and local governments operate without any authority. Thus, to the sovereign, government has no legitimacy or jurisdiction over them. And so, sovereigns believe that interactions and requests with government and its representatives can be ignored. Additionally, sovereigns may take a highly antagonistic outlook towards government, particularly law enforcement, judges and prosecutors, resulting, at times, at threats or actual acts of violence. While the doctrines embraced by sovereigns may appear nonsensical and baseless, the fact that the movement has hundreds of thousands of supporters indicates their precepts have resonance with parts of the population.
Perceived Benefits of Being a Sovereign
To believers, the benefits of being a sovereign are manifold. A sovereign is wealthier than otherwise as he neither pays taxes nor abides by costly laws and regulations. Likewise, their belief that they can access a “Strawman” account valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars enables them to believe that they possess riches that can be used to eliminate their debts.
Moreover, sovereigns believe they can ignore the requests of any government official, including police. Additionally, sovereigns claim to possess the ideological basis to threaten government officials (e.g., law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, county/state clerks, etc.) without perceived negative implications. Analogously, they establish sovereign or quasi-state organizations (e.g., fictitious separate nations, law enforcement agencies, common law courts, grand juries) without regard to their acceptability or permissibility under U.S. law.
These adherents have a sense of fellowship with other sovereigns. Also attractive is the air of superiority they exhibit by viewing themselves as being in the “know.” The movement’s gurus prosper from business ventures touting the benefits of sovereign citizenry, including consulting services, seminars, books and CDs.
Sovereign Citizen Movement’s Structure and Membership
The structure of the sovereign citizen movement includes informal groups (or followers), often led by self-appointed ideologues espousing diverse doctrines to whoever will heed their call. Frequently, these ideals are shared at seminars or consulting services that relate to becoming a sovereign, eliminating debts, or engaging in paper terrorism. The success of these self-designated leaders tends to be short-lived since they are ultimately convicted of varied criminal acts arising from their failure to pay taxes, filing fraudulent financial instruments, or other crimes.
Too, sovereigns include followers who comprise small cabals, connected by family lines or other social networks. These schemers may practice the sovereign citizen perspective on a full-time basis, or otherwise. Lastly, lone wolves may embrace sovereign citizenry, and likewise, utilize its doctrines prominently, haphazardly, or anything in between.
It is estimated that the movement includes some 300,000 people, one-third of which are described as “hard core.” These followers are not formal “members,” of any group. Sovereign citizen adherents are comprised primarily of men, but some women as well (typically if her spouse is involved). Also, sovereigns include members from all races (although predominantly white except for an increasing number of African-Americans, or self-described Moors), broad socio-economic spectrum (but often blue collar without a college education) and diverse age groups.
Sovereigns may experience some financial constraints, political marginalization, or other estrangement from government, which influences their worldview. In the main, sovereign doctrine does not include any religiosity, except for those sovereigns who adhere to a faith-based linked group. Few sovereigns appear to embrace hate-based ideals unless they concurrently align themselves with hate groups. The movement also has supporters in prisons. Interestingly, too, a handful of current or former law enforcement personnel have declared themselves as sovereign actions.
Support for movement has even spread overseas to Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom. According to one estimate, there are some 30,000 sovereigns in Canada, which on a per capita basis, is comparable with U.S. figures.
Sovereign Citizen Tactics and Activities
Sovereign citizen tactics and activities are diverse. These actions may involve harassment of government officials, exploitation of gullible third parties and leveraging their pseudo-legal ideologies to commit fraud and other criminal activities. For illustrative purposes, sovereign activities encompass one or more of the following acts:
- Conducting paper terrorism (e.g., the filing of bogus or legitimate court documents against government officials, seeking specific performance or financial recovery)
- Filing bogus liens and other nuisance filings on real and personal property
- Submitting harassing filings, such as involuntary bankruptcy
- Establishing fake organizations, nations, tribes and false documents (e.g., license plates, vehicle registration, driver’s licenses, and passports)
- Forming illegitimate law enforcement agencies
- Purporting to be a diplomat
- Creating fictitious financial instruments to pay debts
- Conducting fraudulent schemes in relation to finance, real estate, insurance, and immigration, among others
- Participating in mortgage and foreclosure scams
- Occupying vacant and abandoned property
- Undertaking threats, takeovers, and acts of violence vis-à-vis government and private sector institutions and their employees
- Seeking to establish common law grand juries and courts with the object to issue true bills or bounties against government employees, often police
- Attempting to file suspicious activity reports and currency transaction report against someone who has aggrieved the sovereign
Threats Against Law Enforcement
As sovereign citizens may embrace a highly aggressive posture towards government, and law enforcement in particular, police should be wary of the extremist elements of this movement. Hard-core sovereigns may threaten law enforcement with violence or carry out such acts, as well as interfere with an officer’s daily activities (e.g., conducting traffic stops and responding to calls for service). Among the most prominent examples of sovereign citizen violence against law enforcement in recent years are the:
- 2014 murder of two Alaska State Troopers by Nathaniel Kangas
- 2014 killing of two Las Vegas Police Department officers by the couple Jerad and Amanda Miller
- 2012 killing of two sheriff’s deputies in Louisiana by a family-linked sovereign citizen cabal
- 2010 killing of two West Memphis police officers by teenager Joe Kane
- In addition to the murdered police officers mentioned above, sovereign citizens have killed law enforcement officers in various settings including:
- During traffic stops (e.g., Christopher Boone Lacy shot and killed California Highway patrol officer Kenyon Youngstrom in California in 2012)
- Responding to a house fire (e.g., Curtis Holley shot and killed Leon County Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Smith in Florida in 2014)
- Attempting to defuse a bomb (e.g., Woodburn Police Department Captain Tom Tennant and Oregon State Trooper Bill Hakim died from an explosive device placed at a bank in Oregon by father-son sovereigns Bruce and Joshua Turnridge in 2008)
- Trying to convince a family to comply with a request to widen a public road near their home (e.g., Steven Bixby shot and killed Abbeville County Sheriff’s Deputy Danny Wilson and South Carolina Magistrate’s Constable Donnie Outzts in South Carolina in 2003)
Where Do You Find Sovereign Citizens?
Where do find someone who embraces sovereign citizen perspectives? The notion that individuals of this ideological ilk are phantoms without numerous online and offline footprints is without basis, as the following examples indicate.
Sovereign citizens have been found to conduct seminars, offer programs and offer courses at self-styled “law schools” with curriculum that includes: quick fix solutions to debt problems, the steps to follow to become a sovereign citizen and ways of accessing one’s “Strawman” account. Sovereign citizen gurus and devotees have been known to have websites, blogs, a presence on traditional and specialized social media and Internet radio programs. Too, sovereign ideals are disseminated through the sale of merchandise (e.g., print and electronic books, CDs and audio and videotapes,) through websites, including online marketplaces, such as Amazon.com.
Given the propensity of sovereigns to engage in “paper terrorism,” they can serve as litigants against government agencies, officials and private citizens in relation to some perceived infraction or injustice. Additionally, sovereigns submit filings with government agencies that relate to no longer being deemed a citizen, trying to access their “Strawman” account, encumbering real and personal property of third parties and obtaining “apostilles,” from secretary of state offices.
Tense interactions with other government entities and officials may arise, such as with the Department of Motor Vehicles (e.g., returning driver’s license and car registration), Department of Transportation (e.g., not complying with a right-of-way or easement for a public road), sheriff’s department (e.g., being combative in relation to receipt of an eviction notice) and other law enforcement agencies (e.g., follow up on a traffic stop or call for service). During traffic stops, sovereigns may videotape their interactions while not complying with officer requests, such as giving a driver’s license, car registration and proof of insurance.
Responding to Sovereign Citizens
Embracing sovereign citizen ideologies is not a crime. However, crimes carried out by sovereign citizens – as with anyone – should be viewed as a concern. There are a variety of steps that can be pursued to reduce the threat of sovereign citizen criminal activity.
First, heightened awareness about the group, its ideology and tactics is crucial as the movement is not well known or understood. Second, the use of informants and undercover agents in targeting those sovereigns aligned with criminal activity should be pursued. A case in point was the use of an undercover agent in relation to a Las Vegas-based cabal that planned to kidnap and kill a police officer. Third, accessing intelligence and law enforcement databases and networks that cover sovereign citizens and their operations are beneficial so that current threats are understood, shared and responded to appropriately.
Fourth, review of currency transaction reports and suspicious activity reports relating to sovereign citizens are helpful in adducing possible criminality. Fifth, leveraging data and insights of joint terrorism task forces, fusion centers and regional information sharing services about the criminal elements of this movement can undermine the nefarious components of the movement. Sixth, checking to see if a sovereign citizen involved in criminal activity is on the Terrorist Screening Center’s Terrorist Screening Database, the U.S. government’s database of known or suspected terrorists, enables police to better gauge risk.
Seventh, using community-oriented policing to ensure that respective locales do not become vulnerable to the criminal aspects of sovereign citizen activities. Eighth, outreach to private security, the private sector, non-profits, media and public on the phenomenon of sovereign citizenry leverages the participation of multiple communities. Ninth, encouraging tips from the public in relation to suspicious activity or other incongruous conduct can prove beneficial in crime prevention. Tenth, offering counter-narratives to sovereign citizen dogma that contains untruths or misleading principles will aid in undermining the growth of the movement.
As the sovereign citizen movement appears to gain traction in the United States and abroad, a close look at its complex ideology, diverse activities and its criminal nexus is merited now and in the coming years.