Origins: Çirca 1970; fully developed by early 1980s
Ideology: Anti-government, some white supremacist elements
Outreach: Vigilante courts, seminars, shortwave radio, the Internet, "schools of common law"
Notable Episodes: 1996 Montana Freeman standoff; 1997 Republic of Texas standoff
Tactics "Paper terrorism," including frivolous lawsuits, frivolous liens, fictitious financial instruments, fictitious automobile-related documents, and misuse of genuine documents such as IRS forms; various frauds and scams
Hot Tactic: "Redemption" (see below)
The "sovereign citizen" movement is a loosely organized collection of groups and individuals who have adopted a right-wing anarchist ideology originating in the theories of a group called the Posse Comitatus in the 1970s. Its adherents believe that virtually all existing government in the United States is illegitimate and they seek to "restore" an idealized, minimalist government that never actually existed. To this end, sovereign citizens wage war against the government and other forms of authority using "paper terrorism" harassment and intimidation tactics, and occasionally resorting to violence.
2010 UPDATE: On May 20, 2010, two West Memphis, Arkansas, police officers were killed and two Crittenden County sheriff’s officers wounded in two linked shootouts involving an anti-government sovereign citizen with ties to Ohio and Florida.
The sovereign citizen, Jerry Kane, was a “guru” in the movement who traveled around the country, often with his teenaged son Joseph, holding seminars in which he would teach his anti-government conspiracies and pseudo-legal “solutions.” Kane specialized in a set of sovereign citizen theories called “Redemption;” he told audiences that his theories could get them out of their mortgages.
Kane and his son were apparently returning from a seminar he advertised for mid-May in Las Vegas when their vehicle was pulled over by West Memphis Police Department Sergeant Brandon Paudert and Officer Bill Evans, who were engaged in a drug interdiction exercise along the interstate. The Kanes allegedly got out of the vehicle with firearms and opened fire on the two officers, killing them both. They drove off.
An hour and a half later, an extensive manhunt located the vehicle at a Wal-Mart parking lot. As police closed in on the vehicle, a second shootout occurred. During this shootout, Crittenden County Sheriff Dick Busby was shot in the arm and Deputy W. A. Wren received a serious wound to the abdomen. Jerry and Joseph Kane were killed in the return fire.
The tragic incident occurred during a rise of sovereign citizen activity nationwide in 2009-2010. In two incidents in April and May, a Tennessee sovereign citizen, Walter Fitzpatrick III, and a Georgia sovereign citizen, Darren Huff, were arrested in connection with attempts to make “citizens” arrests of various local officials in Monroe County. In April 2010, a sovereign citizen group calling itself Guardians of the Free Republics issued ultimatums to all 50 governors to vacate their offices within 72 hours.
Introduction: A Letter from Michigan
In April 1992, an angry resident of Sanilac County, Michigan, wrote a letter
to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources stating he was no longer a "citizen
of the corrupt political corporate State of Michigan and the United States of
America" and was answerable only to the "Common Laws." He therefore expressly
revoked his signature on any hunting or fishing licenses, which he viewed as
contracts that fraudulently bound him to the illegitimate government of Michigan.
That obscure Michigan hunter would, three years later, become known to the
entire world. He was Terry Nichols, friend and accomplice of Oklahoma City Federal
Building bomber Timothy McVeigh. Nichols subscribed to an unusual right-wing
anti-government ideo-logy whose adherents have in recent years increasingly
plagued public officials, law enforcement officers and private citizens with
a variety of tactics designed to attack the government and other forms of authority.
Its members call themselves, variously, consti-tutionalists, freemen, preamble
citizens, common law citizens and non-foreign/non-resident aliens (Nichols used
several of these), but most commonly refer to themselves as "sovereign citizens."
Members of the sovereign citizen movement engage in a variety of seemingly
bizarre activities. Nichols, for instance, several times repudiated his allegiance
to federal and state governments. He tried to pay a credit card debt with a
fictitious financial instrument called a "certified fractional reserve check."
Brought into court in Michigan in 1993, he refused to walk to the front of the
courtroom and denied the court's jurisdiction over him. Even when he wrote addresses
on letters, Nichols made sure to use the abbreviation "TDC" to indicate that
he was using the federal zip code under "threat, duress and coercion." These
exhibitions of behavior might seem odd or even humorous, but the same ideology
that led to those activities also helped lead Terry Nichols to assist Timothy
McVeigh in building a bomb that would kill 168 people and injure hundreds more.
By then the sovereign citizen movement to which Nichols subscribed had embarked
upon a nationwide resurgence that would last into the 21st century; its anti-government
activities would cause problems in every region of the country.
Origins: The Posse Rides Again
The key distinguishing characteristic of the sovereign citizen movement is its extreme anti-government ideology, couched in conspiratorial, pseudohistorical, pseudolegal and sometimes racist language. Many extremist movements in the 20th century have been anti-government in the sense that they opposed governmental policies, but few have been so purely anti-government that they challenged its very legitimacy. In fact, a number of extremist movements, from the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s to the anticommunist groups of the 1950s and 1960s, attempted with some success to ally themselves with government.
However, beginning in the late 1960s, a number of right-wing fringe groups
formed that questioned the authority and nature of the federal government. Most
grew out of a recently emergent right-wing tax-protest movement: arguments about
the illegitimacy of income tax laws were easily expanded or altered to challenge
the legitimacy of the government itself. The most important of these groups
was the Posse Comitatus,1 which originated in Oregon and California
Members of the Posse Comitatus believed that the county was the true seat of government in the United States. They did not deny the legal existence of federal or state governments, but rather claimed that the county level was the "highest authority of government in our Republic as it is closest to the people." The basic Posse manual stated that there had been "subtle subversion" of the Constitution by various arms and levels of government, especially the judiciary. There was, in fact, a "criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice, disfranchise citizens and liquidate the Constitutional Republic of these United States."
The Posse wanted to reverse this subversion and "restore" the Republic through
(1) unilateral actions by the people (i.e., the Posse) and (2) actions by the
county sheriff. The sheriff, they argued, was the only constitutional law enforcement
officer. Moreover, his most important role was to protect the people from the
unlawful acts of officials of governments like judges and government agents.
Should a sheriff refuse to carry out such duties, the people (i.e., the Posse)
had the right to hang him. In fact, the two most prominent Posse symbols became
a sheriff's badge and a hangman's noose.
The Posse reached its peak in the early 1980s when a farm crisis in the Midwest
allowed Posse leaders to recruit among angry and desperate farmers. By this
time Posse ideology had developed into an elaborate theory involving an original,
utopian form of government based upon "common law" (the "de jure" government)
that had been subverted and replaced with an illegitimate, tyrannical government
(the "de facto" government). Americans obeyed the de facto government, because
they had been tricked into believing it was legitimate.
Although the basic Posse philosophy was anti-government in nature rather than
hate-filled, many leaders of Posse groups were virulent racists. The Posse's
revisionist ideas about government and conspiracy were especially attractive
to Christian Identity believers; as a result, many Identity adherents, including
William Potter Gale, James Wickstrom, Gordon Kahl, Bob Hallstrom and Thomas
Stockheimer, among others, became involved in the Posse or similar groups. The
result was that Posse ideology was often, though by no means always, imbued
with racist and anti-Semitic as well as anti-government language, reflecting
the movement's increasing violence and criminal activity. In the early 1980s,
Posse members and sympathizers became involved in a number of shootings, standoffs,
fraud schemes and other criminal activities. The most notorious incident involved
Gordon Kahl, a North Dakota Posse leader, Christian Identity adherent and activist
in the "township" movement (which advocated forming civil bodies independent
of outside control, a tactic the Montana Freemen would resurrect in 1996). When
United States marshals attempted to arrest Kahl in 1983 for violating his probation,
he opened fire, killing two officers and wounding others before escaping. Four
months later, he was tracked to an Arkansas farmhouse, where he died in a second
shootout that also took the life of a sheriff.
By the end of the 1980s, however, the Posse had largely died away. In addition
to adherents like Kahl, who died violently, other Posse leaders, including William
Potter Gale and Henry "Mike" Beach died naturally. Still others were jailed
or simply dropped out of the movement. The Posse lived on in isolated pockets
but had largely lost its force (in the 1990s, Wickstrom and August Kreis would
recreate the group, but this time solely as a white supremacist organization
with little interest in anti-government theories). Still, the ideology underlying
the Posse lived on, waiting for new leaders and organizations to emerge.
Ideology: The Pernicious 14th Amendment
The ideology of the sovereign citizen movement had matured and crystallized
by the 1980s as an unusual form of right-wing anarchism that focuses, on the
one hand on the importance of local control and, on the other hand, on the avoidance
of virtually all forms of authority and obligation.
Sovereign citizen ideology justifies these goals by claiming that at one time
there was an American utopia governed by English "common law," a utopia in which
every citizen was a "sovereign," and there were no oppressive laws, taxes, regulations
or court orders. However, a conspiracy gradually subverted this system, replacing
it with an illegitimate successor. Different sovereign citizen theorists have
varying versions of this progression, but most include the following elements:
the alleged suppression of a "missing" 13th Amendment that would have disallowed
citizenship for attorneys; the Reconstruction amendments; the 16th Amendment
(allowing an income tax); the 17th Amendment (allowing popular election of senators);
the Federal Reserve Act and the 1933 removal of United States currency from
the gold standard. By that time, many sovereign citizen theorists agree, the
United States government was completely illegitimate, using emergency war powers
and other unlawful measures to rule unconstitutionally.
Among the various subjects of energetic sovereign citizen revisionism, perhaps
none is more important than the 14th Amendment. Ratified in 1868, the Amendment
had several aims, including the guaranteeing of United States citizenship for
the ex-slaves. But to sovereign citizens it did much more; they claim that before
its ratification, virtually no one was a "citizen of the United States." One
would previously have been a citizen of the republic of Ohio or of some other
state; only residents of Washington, D.C., or federal territories were citizens
of the United States. The 14th Amendment created an entirely new class of citizens,
they argue, one that anybody, theoretically, could voluntarily join.
But to become a citizen of the United States was to willingly subject oneself to the complete authority of the federal and state governments; clearly, no one would want to do this. The government, therefore, tricked people into entering into its jurisdiction and that of the "corporate" state government by having them sign contracts with it. The trick was that people did not even realize they were signing contracts: these included items like Social Security cards, drivers' licenses, car registrations, wedding licenses or even, as Terry Nichols noted, hunting licenses and zip codes.
The sovereign citizen solution to this problem is the one that Nichols used.
Since these contracts were made without people's knowledge, they could be declared
invalid and torn up. Social Security numbers, licenses and permits, even birth
certificates could be revoked, allowing people thereby to become "sovereign
citizens," freed from the jurisdiction of the "de facto" government and courts.
They were once more subject only to the "common law."
The development of this theory resulted in a movement whose members believe
not only that virtually all levels of government have no jurisdiction over them
whatsoever, but also that acceptance of any government regulation or permit
means entering into a "contract" with the government that results in the loss
of liberty and freedom. Consequently, committed sovereign citizens resist, sometimes
with violence, nearly every form of governmental authority, from police enforcing
traffic regulations to inspectors enforcing building codes. Unsurprisingly,
they end up in constant conflict with the law.
Tactics: Terrorism and "Paper Terrorism"
In the early 1990s, particularly after the deadly standoffs at Ruby Ridge,
Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas, in 1993, the extreme right experienced a considerable
resurgence. Many older groups like the National Alliance increased in number,
while entirely new movements like the militias developed. Moribund since the
decline of the Posse, the sovereign citizen movement enjoyed a significant rise
in numbers and activity.
The compound in Jordan, Montana, where Freemen kept the F.B.I. at bay for 81 days
This activity included acts of violence, usually against representatives of
the government that sovereign citizens so hated. In October 1993, extremist
fugitives Linda Lyon Block and George Sibley murdered an Opelika, Alabama, police
officer in a shootout in a shopping center parking lot. In early 1994, a band
of extremists associated with the group Juris Christian Assembly viciously assaulted
Karen Mathews, the Stanislaus County, California, recorder, outside her home.
In May 1998, sovereign citizen and Christian Identity adherent George Wolf shot
two volunteer firefighters in Ashtabula County, Ohio, because their vehicle
blocked him. Occasionally, sovereign citizen groups even engaged in high-profile
standoffs with author-ities. In the spring of 1996, the Montana Freemen held
off federal authorities attempting to arrest them (on a variety of charges)
for 81 days near Jordan, Montana. The following spring, members of Richard McLaren's
faction of the so-called "Republic of Texas" initiated another armed confrontation
in far-West Texas when they kidnapped a local couple in response to the arrest
of one of their members. One member was killed during the standoff.
Yet despite a pattern of violent activity, the preferred weapon of members
of the sovereign citizen movement is what has come to be called "paper terrorism."
Paper terrorism involves the use of fraudulent legal documents and filings,
as well as the misuse of legitimate documents and filings, in order to intimidate,
harass and coerce public officials, law enforcement officers and private citizens.
Many paper terrorism tactics originated during the days of the Posse Comitatus,
but were refined and popularized in the 1990s and distributed in books, during
seminars and through the Internet.
One of the first tactics of the resurgent sovereign citizen movement was the
formation of vigilante "common law courts." Members of these courts used them
as a forum for grievances against the "de facto" government or for assistance
in attempts to harass their enemies. A number of common law courts issued threats
of various kinds against public officials. One of the earliest and most visible
such courts was established in Tampa, Florida, in 1993 by Emilio Ippolito and
various followers. Calling itself the "Constitutional Court of We the People,"
the court moved in short order from granting divorces to issuing arrest warrants
against judges. Eventually Ippolito and six followers were convicted in 1997
for interfering with trials in Florida and California and for sending letters
threatening to kidnap and arrest judges and jury members. Other common law courts
were equally defiant; in the Midwest, two leaders of a central Ohio common law
court became involved in violent confrontations during traffic stops, resulting
in one death. Common law courts were especially active from 1994 through 1997,
but because of their relatively high visibility, they were more vulnerable to
concerted action by law enforcement officers. In Missouri and Illinois, for
instance, dozens of common law court members were arrested in 1996 on harassment-related
charges related to their use of bogus liens. This vigilance on the part of law
enforcement helped shut down the common law courts in those states. More generally,
such vigilance caused sovereign citizens to abandon common law courts as a preferred
The filing of frivolous lawsuits and liens against public officials, law enforcement
officers and private citizens, on the other hand, has remained a favorite harassing
strategy. These paper "attacks" intimidate their targets and have the beneficial
side effect of clogging up a court system that sovereign citizens believe is
illegitimate. Frivolous liens became such a problem in the 1990s that a majority of states were forced to pass new laws to make filing them illegal,
their removal easier, or both. Today, eager sovereign citizens can use the Internet
to download a variety of boilerplate forms and documents to wield against the
government. More adventurous types can matriculate at "schools" such as the
Erwin Rommel School of Law; additionally, a number of activists, ranging from
David Wynn Miller to The Aware Group, hold seminars around the country to teach
people -- for a price -- about the latest tactics and weapons.
Sovereign citizens also widely use fictitious financial instruments such as
phony money orders, sight drafts and comptrollers' warrants. Believing paper
money to be invalid, the movement easily justifies the creation of entirely
new forms of "money." From "Public Office Money Certificates" in the early 1980s
to the money orders and warrants of the 1990s, this has been a particularly
popular tactic because it potentially allows the sovereign citizen to get something
for nothing whenever a government agency, bank, business or private citizen
mistakenly accepts one of the bogus instruments. Groups like the Montana Freemen,
Family Farm Preservation and the Republic of Texas put out billions of dollars
(face value) of such instruments before finally being shut down.
The most recent surge in the use of fictitious financial instruments began
in 1999 with the development of a tactic called "Redemption" (sometimes known
as "Accept for Value"), based on the theories of Roger Elvick, a sovereign citizen
and white supremacist convicted on fraud charges in the 1980s. Redemptionists
argue that by using a complicated process known as "regaining one's straw man"
they can establish special Treasury Department accounts and issue bogus instruments
they call "sight drafts" to pay off debts or make purchases. Should law enforcement
officials or others interfere with this activity, redemptionists are told to
file falsified I.R.S. Form 8300s against them, alleging that such officials
engaged in a suspicious currency transaction. By the end of 1999, Redemption
had swept across the country. Sovereign citizen organizations like The Aware
Group, Rightway L.A.W. and the Republic of Texas, among others, regularly hold
Redemption seminars to teach the tactic to eager audience members. A number
of practitioners have been arrested since 1999 in Idaho, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia
and other states for attempting to pass the fictitious sight drafts or for harassing
public officials attempting to halt the practice. In 2001, it is probably the
single most popular sovereign citizen tactic.
However, sovereign citizens have a number of other weapons at their disposal.
Many have engaged in a variety of frauds and scams, often targeting people with
similar ideological beliefs in what might be called affinity fraud. A few of
these schemes, most notably those perpetrated by the Colorado-based We the People
and the Florida-based Greater Ministries International in the 1990s, took in
millions of dollars. Other sovereign citizen groups, like the Embassy of Heaven
and the Washitaw Nation, have specialized in the creation of fictitious car-related
documents ranging from drivers' licenses to license plates.
Still others, including the Civil Rights Task Force and the Constitution Rangers,
have created fictitious law enforcement agencies, complete with fake identification
cards, badges and even raid jackets. People associated with the Civil Rights
Task Force have advocated what they term "reverse intimidation": interrogating
the spouses of law enforcement officers who have had dealings with members.
Even when jailed, sovereign citizens often continue their activities. They
teach other prisoners their tactics; as a result, a number of non-extremist
prisoners have engaged in such sovereign citizen stratagems as filing bogus
liens. Convicted drug dealer and prisoner Kenneth E. Speight, for instance,
filed more than $12 billion in liens against federal judges and prosecutors
in Connecticut. According to federal officials, a fellow prisoner associated
with the Montana Freemen taught Speight how to harass people with liens.
Prominent Groups and Individuals: A Rogue's Gallery
Sovereign citizens constitute a large and energetic extremist movement. Activity
can be found in virtually every state, from pirate radio stations in Florida
to secessionist groups in Hawaii. Well over a hundred sovereign citizen Web
sites have been identified. This list includes some -- but by no means all --
of the movement's notable groups and leaders:
Alfred Adask. Former publisher of Anti-Shyster
magazine (now published via the Web) and aggressive practitioner of "guerrilla
lawfare," the Dallas, Texas-based Adask was especially active in the 1990s in
promoting the use of bogus liens. In addition to his Web site, Adask also hosts
a satellite radio show.
The American's Bulletin.
Published from Central Point, Oregon, by Robert Kelly, it is the leading publication
promoting sovereign citizen tactics and activities, especially Redemption.
The Aware Group. A Greenville, South Carolina,
sovereign citizen group led by John Howard Alexander that is active in marketing
"common law" trusts and Redemption over the Internet and at seminars across
The Embassy of Heaven. A small group led
by Paul Revere (formerly Craig Fleshman) and based in Stayton, Oregon, the Embassy
markets bogus license plates and other automobile documents to followers nationwide.
It was evicted from its former location for nonpayment of local taxes. Followers
-- called "Ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven" -- disdain obedience to any
George Gordon. From Isabella, Missouri,
Gordon runs a "School of Common Law," which he also promotes on his radio show,
"The American Law Hour."
Brent Johnson. Host of the "American Sovereign"
radio show and, with Lee Parker, director of Freedom Bound International, a
"common law service center," Johnson holds seminars nationwide to promote his
books, trusts and other products.
David Wynn Miller. This Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based
sovereign citizen is one of the most unusual of the "common law gurus" who travel
the country holding seminars and offering legal advice. Miller has created his
own unique version of English grammar, one that even many sovereign citizens
find hard to understand or accept. He has also been active in Canada.
Republic of Texas. The original “Republic of Texas,” formed in late 1995, soon split into several competing factions, which later re-unified in 2002. Daniel Miller, the leader of one of the factions, is the “President” of this sovereign citizen group, which pretends that Texas is an independent country.
Rightway L.A.W. With headquarters in Akron,
Ohio, this group is one of the most active sovereign citizen groups in the country,
with 15 chapters in at least 10 states. Led by Rick Schramm, Jack Smith, Jeanne
Collins and Mary Keane, it is one of the major promoters of Redemption. Some
chapters also reach out to prison inmates.
Charles Weisman. Based in Burnsville, Minnesota,
Weisman is a prolific author on "common law" topics like martial law, the right
to travel (unfettered by traffic laws or automobile regulations) and so forth.
A Christian Identity adherent, he is also currently one of the most visible
white supremacists promoting sovereign citizen doctrines.
Moorish groups. The resurgence of sovereign
citizen activity in the 1990s led to an unexpected development: the appropriation
of sovereign citizen ideology and tactics by a variety of African American groups.
These groups, generally identifying themselves as "Moors," combine standard
sovereign citizen theories with many new twists and additions of their own.
Some groups are, to varying degrees, Islamic in nature, while others adhere
to various New Age philosophies. Examples include the Moorish Nation, the United
Mawshakh Nation of Nuurs and the Washitaw Nation. A number of such groups have
ties to "traditional" sovereign citizen groups. Many of their tactics are the
same, too, from bogus automobile documents to Redemption.
|Do-it-yourself automobile documents: a Washitaw Nation
license plate and a "registration" card issued and stamped by the Embassy of Heaven.
1Posse Comitatus is a Latin term for "power [or force] of the county."
It originally referred, in English legal traditions, to the power of local authorities
to call upon the body of the people to enforce the law in a time of crisis.
The American idea of the "posse," as in the Old West, is a descendant of these