According to various estimates, there are several hundred thousand sovereign citizen adherents in the United States, a type of anti-government extremists. These individuals believe that the U.S. federal government is illegitimate and that they are “freemen,” outside the control of government. Sovereign citizens eschew all affiliations and interactions with the federal government, while giving primacy to the power of the county law enforcement official, the sheriff. Furthermore, this mindset is comprised of pseudo-legal jargon as well as sometimes coupled with various conspiracy theories of militia groups: from a world-government trend to a foreign cabal controlling the U.S. and from the existence of UN troops and FEMA concentration camps on U.S. soil.
Indeed, there has been some overlap between those who espouse sovereign citizen and radical militia ideologies; the latter being stringent Second Amendment supporters with an, often, strong strain of anti-government precepts, tied with the fear that government authorities will confiscate guns and weapons of U.S. citizenry. Some individuals embrace traditional sovereign citizen, extremist militia and other radical tenets.
In the past several years, sovereign citizens have increasingly been involved in criminal activities nationwide, including fraud as well as threats and violence against government officials, particularly law enforcement.
Among the more prominent examples of sovereign citizen violence against law enforcement are the:
- 2018 killing of a police officer in Locust Grove, Georgia, by Tierre Guthrie;
- 2017 murder of a police officer in Three Forks, Montana by Lloyd and Marshall Barrus;
- 2016 killings of three police officers in Baton Rouge by Gavin Long;
- 2014 killing of two Las Vegas Police Department officers by Jerad and Amanda Miller;
- 2012 killing of two sheriff’s deputies in Louisiana by a family-linked sovereign citizen cabal;
- and the 2010 killing of two West Memphis police officers by father-son team Jerry and Joe Kane.
These murders are indicative of the types of threats law enforcement have faced from sovereign citizens for more than three decades, which arose with the sovereign citizen progenitor, the Posse Comitatus group.
Against this backdrop, it is crucial that U.S. law enforcement is made aware of the dynamics of the threat of sovereign citizens and craft solutions to combat this growing homeland security challenge. Security leaders at the enterprise level should also be educated on the issue, as potential insider threats abound in this area as well.
With that in mind, this article addresses the key issues that security leaders and law enforcement should consider regarding this domestic threat:
1. What they think?
While there is no uniformity in sovereign citizen ideology, most believe that the government is illegitimate, and prefer autonomy from the government. They believe there is no need to pay taxes, obtain licenses or registrations, pay fees, or participate in court proceedings.
They may characterize their activities as personal and non-commercial, claiming autonomy from the government. Others may establish fictitious organizations or nations, asserting they have diplomatic immunity. Some believe that they can pay off debts and other obligations by accessing a fictitious U.S. Treasury account.
They can be hostile or aggressive vis-à-vis law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and other government officials. Their hatred for government may lead to them purposely targeting with violence in preplanned attacks or in dynamic situations.
Concurrently, they may be involved in “paper terrorism,” meaning they file frivolous lawsuits and try to put liens on real estate and personal property in the hopes of getting a financial settlement or having their targets ignore their illegal activities.
2. How can you tell if you are interacting with a sovereign citizen?
Their Car: May have no license plate, fake license plate, anti-government stickers, anti-government posters/leaflets.
Their Home: Surveillance cameras, security fences, anti-government stickers, anti-government posters/leaflets.
When you interact with them they may: Claim that they are a sovereign citizen traveling upon the land, uncooperative (no response, cite statutes/law claiming you are in the wrong), ask you for your delegation of authority, allege that you have no authority to stop/question them, share with you fraudulent documents (e.g., driver’s license, car registration, insurance), threaten you with lawsuits/liens on your property, threaten you verbally/physically, drive away during traffic stop, try to harm you with their car/weapon.
3. What you should be concerned about when interacting with a sovereign citizen?
Car/Home/Elswhere: Do they have weapons (particularly firearms)? Are they video/audio recording your conversation? Are there additional persons in the car?
Officers should look for possible criminal activity in the realm of weapons, drugs, proceeds of crime, money laundering, components of explosives, fraudulent documents/currency, fraud, extortion, illegitimate government filings, etc.
4. Typical crimes that sovereign citizens have been convicted of, include:
- Interfering with officer duties, threats against officer;
- Murder, solicitation of violence;
- Impersonating an officer, diplomat;
- Forged documents, forged currency, fraudulent financial instruments;
- Mail, wire, bank fraud;
- Advocating the overthrow of the federal government;
- Tax violations (failure to pay, evading taxes, fraudulent returns);
- Debt elimination scheme;
- Numerous traffic infractions (no registration, license, insurance).
5. So, then what?
- First, determine if the person claims to be a sovereign citizen.
- Next, ensure your safety, (Are they agitated/aggressive? Does this appear to be the first time/nth time they had negative interaction with police?)
- Assess if they are a threat to you or others.
- See if they have committed or plan on committing a crime.
- Ask questions, gather documents/flyers/evidence.
- Based on what they say or do, what crimes have they committed (or do they plan on committing)?
- Reach out to supervisor, fusion center, Joint Terrorism Task Force or intelligence zone officer.
- File a suspicious activity report.
- Be aware of possible retribution by sovereign citizens such as lawsuits in state or federal court, liens on your home/personal property, possible filing of involuntary bankruptcy, or threat or attack at your home.