A subculture that exists in most communities around the United States, whose followers believe in bizarre, complex antigovernment sentiments. It has been growing at a fast pace since the late 2000s. Sovereign Citizens, as they are commonly referred, believe that they—not judges, juries, law enforcement, or elected officials—get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore. They don’t think government has any business inside their lives. The movement originated through racist and anti-Semitic beliefs. However, most modern Sovereigns, many of whom are African American, are unaware of the movement’s history.
While it’s impossible to know how many Sovereigns there are in the U.S. today, in part because there is no central leadership and no organized group that members can join, a conservative estimate places the group’s number around 500,000. Those who are attracted to this subculture typically attend a seminar or two, or visit one of a thousand websites and online videos on the subject and then simply choose to act on what they have learned. Some start by testing Sovereign ideology with small offenses such as driving without a license, while others proceed directly to taking on the IRS as tax protesters. As Sovereign theories have gone viral throughout the nation’s prison systems and among people who are unemployed and desperate, the number of followers has exponentially grown.
The contemporary Sovereign belief system is founded on a decades-old conspiracy theory. Sovereigns believe that at some point in history, the United States “common law” government system was secretly replaced by a new system based on admiralty law, the law of the sea and international commerce. Under common law, Sovereigns believe they are “free men,” who have the right to move about and conduct their lives as they see fit. Under admiralty law, they are slaves, and secret government forces have a vested interest in keeping them that way.
Some Sovereigns believe this deceitful change occurred during the Civil War, while others blame the events of 1933 when the U.S. abandoned the gold standard in banking. According to Sovereigns, this change allowed the government to pledge its citizenry as collateral, selling their future earning capabilities to foreign investors, effectively enslaving all Americans. This sale, they claim, takes place at birth, with the issuance of a birth certificate and application for Social Security Number. Sovereigns allege that the government then uses the birth certificate and Social Security card to set up a corporate trust account in the baby’s name—a secret Treasury account—which it funds with an amount ranging from $600,000 to $20 million.
Many Sovereigns have committed themselves to the idea that law enforcement and court systems around the country know about this government takeover but are denying the Sovereigns’ rights by ignoring their claims and forcing them to pay “tribute” to a government they do not recognize. They believe the evidence for their theories can be found on the birth certificate itself, as most certificates use all capital letters to spell out a baby’s name. JOHN DOE, for example, is actually the name of the corporate shell identity or “straw man,” while John Doe is the baby’s “real” flesh-and-blood name. As the child grows older, most of his legal documents will use capital letters, which means that his state-issued driver’s license, his marriage license, his car registration, his criminal court records, his cable TV bill, and correspondence from the IRS all will pertain to his corporate shell identity, not his real, Sovereign identity.
The process Sovereigns have devised to split the straw man from the flesh-and-blood man is called “redemption,” and its purpose is two-fold. Once separated from the corporate shell, the newly freed man is now outside of the jurisdiction of all admiralty laws. More importantly, by filing a series of complex, legal-sounding documents, the Sovereign can tap into their secret Treasury account for their own purposes. Over the past 30 years, hundreds of Sovereigns have attempted to perfect the process by packaging and promoting different combinations of forms and paperwork. While no one has ever succeeded, Sovereigns are nonetheless convinced that with the right combination of words and filings, they will one day be granted access to their secret account.
From 2008 through 2012, most new recruits to the Sovereign citizen movement were people who found themselves in desperate financial situations. Many lost jobs, money or their homes in the midst of the tumultuous economic downturn that affected many Americans. A great deal of Sovereigns joined the movement in search of bizarre and convoluted schemes to evade state and federal income taxes, in order to hide their assets from the IRS. Others have engaged in debt and mortgage elimination fraud to avoid financial responsibility. At the core of their beliefs, all Sovereigns take issue with the fairness of taxes, traffic laws, child support obligations, or banking practices, but are too impatient to try to change what they dislike about those obligations through traditional, political means.
Once in the movement, Sovereigns immerse themselves in the lifestyle by attending specialized seminars and national conferences, enjoying a large assortment of alternative newspapers and radio networks, and by subscribing to Sovereign-oriented magazines and websites. While the techniques sold by promoters never perform as promised, most followers are nonetheless content to fight back against the government, blaming judges, prosecutors, and police officers when their ridiculous methods fail. Most have never achieved financial success in life, but they take pride in engaging the government in battle, comparing themselves to the Founding Fathers during the American Revolution.
Tactics & Violence
The weapon of choice for most Sovereign citizens is paper and when one gets angry with government officials, their revenge most often takes the form of “paper terrorism.” A simple traffic violation can end up provoking dozens of court filings containing hundreds of pages of pseudo-legal nonsense. For example, in 2010 a Sovereign was engaged in a protracted legal battle over having to pay a dog-licensing fee. They filed 10 Sovereign documents in court over a two-month period and then declared victory when the agitated prosecutor decided to drop the case. While a normal criminal case docket might have 60 or 70 entries, many involving Sovereigns have as many as 1,200. Additionally, Sovereigns have been known to file retaliatory, phony property liens against their perceived oppressors and to file fake tax forms that are designed to ruin an enemy’s credit rating and cause them to be audited by the IRS.
Unfortunately, there have been deadly engagements with Sovereign citizens after they become particularly desperate, angry and cornered. The resulting rage can be lethal for law enforcement and devastating for the communities they impact:
- 1995 in Ohio, a Sovereign named Michael Hill pulled a gun on and killed an officer during a traffic stop;
- 1997 in New Hampshire, extremist Carl Drega shot dead two officers and two civilians, and wounded another three officers before being killed himself;
- 1997 in Idaho, brothers Doug and Craig Broderick were pulled over for failing to signal; they killed one officer and wounded another before being killed themselves in a violent gun battle;
- 2003 in South Carolina, members of the Bixby family killed two law enforcement officers in a dispute over a small sliver of land next to their home;
- 2010 in Arkansas, Jerry and Joseph Kane, a father and son Sovereign team, shot to death two police officers who had pulled them over in a traffic stop. Later that day, the Kanes were killed in a fierce shootout with police that wounded two other officers; and
- 2014 in Nevada, a married couple, Jerad and Amanda Miller, who espoused extreme anti-government views, killed two police officers and an intervening armed civilian. The couple died after engaging responding officers in a shootout; police shot and killed Jerad, while Amanda committed suicide after being wounded.
Law enforcement officers across the country are experiencing a growing number of contacts with Sovereign citizens, individuals and groups who possess a strong anti-government ideology. Regardless of whether you are dealing with a novice or a hardliner Sovereign citizen, the prospect of violent action and threats to officer safety should never be taken for granted. Law enforcement must remain vigilant and ready to respond to any threat they may encounter when interacting with this bizarre and potentially violent group.
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