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The sovereign citizen movement is a loose grouping of American litigants, commentators, and financial scheme promoters. Self-described sovereign citizens take the position that they are answerable only to common law and are not subject to any statutes or proceedings at the federal, state, or municipal levels, or that they do not recognize U.S. currency and that they are "free of any legal constraints". They especially reject most forms of taxation as illegitimate. Participants in the movement argue this concept in opposition to "federal citizens" who, they say, have unknowingly forfeited their rights by accepting some aspect of federal law.
The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) classifies "sovereign citizen extremists" among domestic terror threats. In 2010 the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) estimated that approximately 100,000 Americans were "hard-core sovereign believers" with another 200,000 "just starting out by testing sovereign techniques for resisting everything from speeding tickets to drug charges."
Richard McDonald has established State Citizen Service Centers around the United States. Writing in American Scientific Affiliation, Dennis L. Feucht describes McDonald's theory, which claims that there are two classes of citizens in America: the "original citizens of the states" (or "States citizens") and "U.S. citizens." McDonald asserts that U.S. citizens or "Fourteenth Amendment citizens" have civil rights,
legislated to give the freed black slaves after the Civil War rights comparable to the unalienable constitutional rights of white state citizens. The benefits of U.S. citizenship are received by consent in exchange for freedom. State citizens consequently take steps to revoke and rescind their U.S. citizenship and reassert their de jure common-law state citizen status. This involves removing one's self from federal jurisdiction and relinquishing any evidence of consent to U.S. citizenship, such as a Social Security number, driver's license, car registration, use of ZIP codes, marriage license, voter registration, and birth certificate. Also included is refusal to pay state and federal income taxes because citizens not under U.S. jurisdiction are not required to pay them. Only residents (resident aliens) of the states, not its citizens, are income-taxable, state citizens argue. And as a state citizen land owner, one can bring forward the original land patent and file it with the county for absolute or allodial property rights. Such allodial ownership is held "without recognizing any superior to whom any duty is due on account thereof" (Black's Law Dictionary). Superiors include those who levy property taxes or who hold mortgages or liens against the property.
Critics of sovereign citizen theory assert that sovereign citizens fail to sufficiently examine the context of the case laws from which they cite, and ignore adverse evidence, such as Federalist No. 15, where Alexander Hamilton expressed the view that the Constitution placed everyone personally under federal authority.
The concept of a sovereign citizen originated in the Posse Comitatus movement as a teaching of Christian Identity minister William P. Gale. The concept has influenced the tax protester movement, the Christian Patriot movement, and the redemption movement—the last of which claims that the U.S. government uses its citizens as collateral against foreign debt.
Gale identified the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution as the act that converted sovereign citizens into federal citizens by their agreement to a contract to accept benefits from the federal government. Other commentators have identified other acts, including the Uniform Commercial Code, the Emergency Banking Act, the Zone Improvement Plan, and the alleged suppression of the Titles of Nobility Amendment.
Some of those in the movement consider the term "sovereign citizen" an oxymoron, preferring to view themselves as sovereign individuals "seeking the Truth".
Variations of the argument that an individual is "sovereign" have been rejected by the courts, especially in tax cases such as Johnson v. Commissioner (Phyllis Johnson's argument—that she was not subject to the federal income tax because she was an "individual sovereign citizen"—was rejected by the Court), Wikoff v. Commissioner (argument by Austin Wikoff—that he was not subject to the federal income tax because he was an "individual sovereign citizen"—was rejected by the Court), United States v. Hart (Douglas Hart's argument—in response to a lawsuit against him for filing false lien notices against IRS personnel, that the U.S. District Court had no jurisdiction over him because he was a "sovereign citizen"—was rejected by the District Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit), Young v. Internal Revenue Serv. (Jerry Young's argument—that the Internal Revenue Code did not pertain to him because he was a "sovereign citizen"—was rejected by the U.S. District Court), and Stoecklin v. Commissioner (Kenneth Stoecklin's argument—that he was a "freeborn and sovereign" person and was therefore not subject to the income tax laws—was rejected by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit; The court imposed $3,000 penalty on Stoecklin for filing a frivolous appeal).
In Risner v. Commissioner, Gregg Risner's argument—that he was not subject to federal income tax because he was a "Self-governing Free Born Sovereign Citizen"—was rejected by the Court as being a "frivolous protest" of the tax laws. See also Maxwell v. Snow (Lawrence Maxwell's arguments—that he was not subject to U.S. federal law because he was a "sovereign citizen of the Union State of Texas", that the United States was not a republican form of government and therefore must be abolished as unconstitutional, that the Secretary of the Treasury's jurisdiction was limited to the District of Columbia, and that he was not a citizen of the United States—were rejected by the Court as being frivolous), and Rowe v. Internal Revenue Serv. (Heather Rowe's argument—that she was not subject to federal income tax because she was not a "party to any social compact or contract", because the IRS had no jurisdiction over her or her property, because she was "not found within the territorial limited jurisdiction of the US", because she was a "sovereign Citizen of the State of Maine", and because she was "not a U.S. Citizen as described in 26 U.S.C. 865(g)(1)(A)..."—was rejected by the Court and was ruled to be "frivolous").
Other tax cases include Heitman v. Idaho State Tax Commission, Cobin v. Commissioner (John Cobin's arguments—that he had the ability to opt out of liability for federal income tax because he was white, that he was a "sovereign citizen of Oregon", that he was a "non-resident alien of the United States", and that his sovereign status made his body real property—were rejected by the Court and were ruled to be "frivolous tax-protester type arguments"), Glavin v. United States (John Glavin's argument—that he was not subject to an Internal Revenue Service summons because, as a sovereign citizen, he was not a citizen of the United States—was rejected by the Court), and United States v. Greenstreet (Gale Greenstreet's arguments — that he was of "Freeman Character" and "of the White Preamble Citizenship and not one of the 14th Amendment legislated enfranchised De Facto colored races", that he was a "white Preamble natural sovereign Common Law De Jure Citizen of the Republic/State of Texas", and that he was a sovereign, not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States District Court — were ruled to be "entirely frivolous"),. In view of such cases, the Internal Revenue Service has added "free born" or "sovereign" citizenship to its list of frivolous claims that may result in a $5,000 penalty when used as the basis for an inaccurate tax return.
Similarly, in a case in which an individual named Andrew Schneider was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for making a threat by mail, Schneider argued that he was a free, sovereign citizen and therefore was not subject to the jurisdiction of the federal courts. That argument was rejected by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit as having "no conceivable validity in American law."
In a criminal case in 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington noted:
Defendant Kenneth Wayne Leaming was found guilty of three counts of retaliating against a federal judge or law enforcement officer by a false claim, one count of concealing a person from arrest, and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. On May 24, 2013, Leaming was sentenced to eight years in federal prison.
The New York Times reports that cases involving so-called sovereign citizens pose "a challenge to law enforcement officers and court officials" in connection with the filing of false notices of liens -- a tactic sometimes called "paper terrorism." Anyone can file a notice of lien against property such as real estate, vehicles, or other assets of another under the Uniform Commercial Code and other laws. In most states of the United States, the validity of liens is not investigated or inquired into at the time of filing. Notices of liens (whether legally valid or not) are a cloud on the title of the property and may affect the person's credit rating. Notices of releases of liens generally must be filed before property may be transferred. The validity of a lien is determined by further legal procedures. Clearing up fraudulent notices of liens may be expensive and time consuming. Filing fraudulent notices of liens or documents is both a crime and a civil offense, a tort.
In May 2010, two police officers in West Memphis, Arkansas were shot and killed by Joseph T. Kane after Kane and his father were the subject of a traffic stop. Kane and his father were later identified as members of the sovereign citizen movement.
In September 2010, David Russell Myrland, an associate of a sovereign citizens group, sent emails and placed telephone calls to various officials of the City of Kirkland, Washington, telling them to "keep their doors unlocked", that they were going to be arrested, and that they "should not resist". Myrland also reportedly threatened federal judges and the chief prosecutor of King County, Washington. Myrland's threat to arrest the mayor of Kirkland came about after he was arrested by police. His vehicle had been impounded after he was found driving with a suspended license and expired vehicle-license tabs. An unloaded gun with ammunition nearby had been found on the seat of the car. Although he was not a law enforcement officer, Myrland had claimed that he had the authority to form a group of private citizens to arrest felons in public office "as permitted by RCW 9A.16.020" (the state statute governing lawful use of force). On December 2, 2011, Myrland was sentenced to three years and four months in federal prison after pleading guilty in connection with the threats he made, including the threat to forcibly arrest the mayor of Kirkland, Washington.
In March 2011, a central figure in the sovereign citizen movement named Samuel Lynn Davis pleaded guilty to 31 counts of money laundering in Federal district court in Nevada. Davis was snared in a sting operation after he agreed to launder more than $1.29 million in what he believed to be illicit funds. Davis accepted $73,782 fees to launder the money, not realizing he was dealing with Federal law enforcement agents. In October 2011, Davis was sentenced to four years and nine months in Federal prison, and was ordered to pay over $95,000 in restitution. As of late July 2012, Davis was classified as a fugitive, having failed to surrender to authorities to begin his prison sentence in June 2012. On August 7, 2012, Davis was arrested by sheriff's deputies in White Earth, North Dakota.
In September 2011, Edward and Elaine Brown, serving long federal prison sentences for various crimes, were identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as being members of the sovereign citizen movement.
On November 4, 2011, a federal jury in Montgomery, Alabama found Monty Ervin guilty of conspiracy to defraud the United States and tax evasion. His wife Patricia Ervin was also found guilty of various related charges. According to a news release by the U.S. Department of Justice, Ervin and his wife had acquired hundreds of investment properties over a ten-year period, had received more than $9 million in rental income, but had paid nothing in federal income taxes. The Ervins reportedly claimed that they were not United States citizens, that they were “sovereigns,” and that they did not consider themselves subject to federal or state law. Ervin and his wife had also filed documents in probate court attempting to renounce their U.S. citizenship. In one filing, Ervin declared himself to be the governor of Alabama in its “original jurisdiction.” On May 29, 2012, Monty Ervin was sentenced to ten years in prison, and Patricia Ervin was sentenced to five years of probation, with the condition that she spend 40 consecutive weekends in jail.
In December 2011, Shawn Talbot Rice was arrested at his home at Seligman, Arizona, after a ten-hour standoff with FBI agents and other law enforcement personnel. On July 24, 2012, Rice was found guilty in federal court in Nevada in connection with the same money-laundering scheme that resulted in the conviction of Samuel Lynn Davis. The guilty verdicts came on one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, thirteen counts of money laundering, and four counts of failure to appear in court in connection with time that Rice spent as a fugitive. Rice, who had also falsely claimed to be a lawyer and a rabbi, was described as "a leader in the anti-government 'sovereign citizens' movement." During the trial, Rice tried to argue that the presiding federal judge had no authority to render a judgment against Rice. On March 20, 2013, Rice was sentenced to 8 years and 2 months in prison, and was ordered to forfeit over $1.29 million.
On February 1, 2012, Timothy Garrison, an accountant from Mount Vernon, Washington was sentenced to three and a half years in federal prison after having pled guilty to tax fraud. He admitted to having filed about 50 falsified tax returns. Federal prosecutors contended that Garrison's actions cost the Internal Revenue Service over 2.4 million dollars in tax revenues. Prosecutors also stated that the sixty-year-old accountant had described himself as a “sovereign citizen” beyond the reach of state and federal law. Garrison had previously served time in federal prison in the 1980s in connection with fraud against investors in a cattle ranch.
On June 18, 2012, Francis August Schaeffer Cox, who had asserted that he was a sovereign citizen, was found guilty in the United States District Court in Anchorage, Alaska, of several felony charges including conspiracy to commit murder. On January 8, 2013, Cox was sentenced to 25 years and 10 months in prison.
On June 20, 2012, Anson Chi was arrested by federal authorities for allegedly trying to blow up a natural gas pipe line in a residential area of Plano, Texas. On June 3, 2013, Chi pleaded guilty to a charge of attempting to destroy a natural gas pipeline used in interstate commerce, and to a charge of possessing an explosive device not registered with the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record. Chi is projected to serve over 20 years in federal prison.
On July 19, 2012, Martin Jonassen, who had described himself as a sovereign citizen, was found guilty by a jury in a federal court of kidnapping his 21 year old daughter, whom he allegedly had sexually abused, and of obstruction of justice. During the incident, the daughter escaped from a hotel room where Jonassen had been holding her, ran naked into a store and begged for help. Jonassen was caught on surveillance footage chasing her, dragging her out of the store and pushing her into his car. The daughter reportedly "had never been to school and only read books about religion, history and the government approved by her father." She had seen a doctor only once in her life. On February 19, 2013, Jonassen was sentenced to forty years in federal prison.
On August 16, 2012, two sheriff's deputies were shot to death and two others seriously wounded after having been ambushed near LaPlace, Louisiana. Authorities arrested seven suspects, two of whom have been identified by law enforcement as members of a sovereign citizen's group.
On August 27, 2012, Lonnie G. Vernon and Karen Vernon, an Alaska couple who were described as "followers of Schaeffer Cox", pled guilty to conspiracy to commit murder of U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline, who presided over a federal income tax case based on sovereign-citizen theories which had cost the Vernons their house. They also admitted that they had planned to kill Beistline's daughter and grandchildren, and an Internal Revenue Service official. The Vernons bought a silencer-equipped pistol and hand grenades in March 2011; but the seller to whom they disclosed their plans was a confidential informant, and the Vernons were arrested as soon as the transaction had been consummated. At the sentencing hearing on January 7, 2013, Lonnie Vernon continued to assert that he was denying the authority of the court, the judge and the prosecutors. Karen Vernon was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Lonnie Vernon was sentenced to over 25 years in prison.
On September 10, 2012, David B. Graham of Gwinnett County, Georgia pled guilty to violation of the Georgia racketeering statute. After losing his home in a foreclosure, he moved back into the home and filed a fraudulent quitclaim deed in the county property records in an attempt to transfer the ownership of the home back to himself. He was one of approximately a dozen so-called "sovereign citizens" who had been indicted on racketeering charges "for essentially stealing 18 high-end homes in eight counties...." At the hearing, Graham's attorney disclosed to the Court that Graham had been "influenced by the sovereign citizen group – individuals who believe that they each make up their own sovereign state or nationality, and are thus immune to federal, state and local laws...."
On September 18, 2012, James Timothy ("Tim") Turner was arrested after having been indicted by a federal grand jury in Alabama on one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States under 18 U.S.C. § 371 by, among other things, allegedly filing a false 300 million dollar bond in an attempt to pay taxes, one count of passing a false 300 million dollar bond, five additional counts of violations of section 514(a)(2) of title 18 of the U.S. Code (relating to fictitious documents), one count of filing false Form 1096 reports with the Internal Revenue Service, one count of willful failure to file a federal income tax return, and one count of giving false testimony in a federal bankruptcy proceeding. Turner has described himself as the "president" of a sovereign citizens group called the "Republic for the United States of America". According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Turner had also been involved with the Guardians of the Free Republics organization. On March 22, 2013, Turner was found guilty on all charges. On July 31, 2013, he was sentenced to 18 years in Federal prison. He is incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, and is scheduled for release in May 2028.
On September 27, 2012, 71 year old Phillip Monroe Ballard, who at the time was being held in Federal custody in Fort Worth, Texas, facing a trial on Federal tax charges scheduled to begin on October 1, 2012, was charged with offering $100,000 in a plot to kill U.S. District Judge John McBryde, the judge who was scheduled to preside over the trial. Federal authorities alleged that Ballard gave a fellow inmate detailed instructions to kill Judge McBryde with a high-powered rifle from a building across the street from the federal courthouse. Ballard allegedly said the killer could shoot the judge as he entered the courthouse. The Federal Bureau of Investigation also alleged that Ballard had a back up plan to have his accomplice plant a bomb in the judge's vehicle. Ballard's tax trial did not begin on Monday, October 1. Instead, Ballard appeared for a preliminary hearing on the murder solicitation charge on that day. The investigation reportedly had begun a few weeks earlier, following a tip from a fellow inmate. Ballard, who claimed to be a "sovereign citizen" immune from all U.S. laws, was convicted in 1987 of a federal tax charge in connection with his seizure by force of a Mercedes automobile that was subject to a federal tax lien. In 2011, Ballard was also charged with falsely holding himself out as an attorney. At the prosecution's request, the murder solicitation charge was dismissed without prejudice in January 2013. Ballard was also scheduled to go on trial on one count of corruptly endeavouring to interfere with the administration of U.S. internal revenue laws under 26 U.S.C. section 7212(a) and six counts of aiding and assisting in the preparation and presentation of false federal income tax returns under 26 U.S.C. section 7206(2). A jury trial has been re-scheduled to begin on January 13, 2014. On December 11, 2013, Ballard was found guilty of attempting to hire a hit man to kill the federal judge. Sentencing has been scheduled for March 17, 2014, and Ballard faces up to 20 years in prison.
On December 11, 2012, Jeniffer Herring of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina allegedly led officers on a chase of up to 70 miles per hour while she was talking by cell phone to a 911 dispatcher as she allegedly refused to stop for the police who were trying to apprehend her. According to a news release from the Brunswick County Sheriff's Office, Herring told 911 dispatchers she would pull over for deputies for $300,000. A law enforcement official indicated that Herring was a member of the "sovereign citizen" movement. Herring eventually was stopped, and was charged with driving while intoxicated, felony flight to elude arrest, driving with a revoked driver license, reckless driving, and driving left of center. Herring also faces a separate charge for failure to appear in court in another case involving a charge of driving while intoxicated. On January 28, 2013, she was indicted by a grand jury.
On December 29, 2012, dentist Glenn Richard Unger, alias "Dr. Sam Kennedy," was arrested in Ogdensburg, New York, after having been indicted by a federal grand jury ten days earlier, on one count of attempting to interfere with the administration of the internal revenue laws under Internal Revenue Code section 7212(a), four counts of filing false claims for tax refunds under 18 USC section 287, one count of tax evasion under Internal Revenue Code section 7201, and one count of uttering a fictitious obligation under 18 USC section 514(a)(2). He was charged with filing more than $36 million in fraudulent federal income tax refund claims. On January 2, 2013, a federal prosecutor asserted in a court hearing for Unger that Unger was a danger to the community and that Unger had stated that he would rather die than become subject to the government. Unger has been identified as a leader of the sovereign citizen movement. The indictment alleged, among other things, that in June 2011 Unger submitted false documents with the Clerk's Office of Saratoga County, New York, in an attempt to release a $116,410.43 federal tax lien against him, for taxes and penalties for years 2004, 2005, and 2006. The Federal Bureau of Investigation began looking at Unger in the spring of 2010, in connection with the now-defunct group called the Guardians of the Free Republics, when the FBI was investigating letters that had been sent by that group to the governors of all fifty states, demanding that all governors resign within three days. Prosecutors also alleged that Unger filed no valid federal income tax returns between 1999 and 2005. On May 23, 2013, the court ordered a mental competency hearing for Unger after he referred to himself as being "deceased." On August 7, 2013, the Court ruled that Unger was competent to stand trial. After a four-day trial Unger was found guilty of all charges by a jury in Federal court in Albany, New York, on October 21, 2013. Evidence in the case also indicated that Unger left his dental business in 2006, and referred about eighty of his patients to an orthodontist, William O'Donnell, without telling O'Donnell that the patients had already pre-paid Unger for dental work. After O'Donnell complained to Unger that the customers were expecting O'Donnell to perform the work, Unger reportedly gave O'Donnell a bogus promissory note that O'Donnell could supposedly use to obtain funds from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. When O'Donnell tried to deposit the note at a bank, he found the note to be fictitious and worthless. Sentencing for Unger is scheduled for March 10, 2014.
In May 2013, the Criminal Investigation division of the Internal Revenue Service issued its Annual Business Report for Fiscal Year 2012 (for the fiscal year ended September 30, 2012). Within the "Narcotics and Counterterrorism" section of the report, in a portion entitled "Sovereign Citizens", the IRS mentions the convictions of Monty and Patricia Ervin, Timothy Garrison and David Russell Myrland. In the report, the IRS states: "During 2012, CI [the Criminal Investigation division of the IRS] found a re-emergence of individuals and/or entities who proclaimed themselves Sovereign Citizens. Generally, they utilized anti-government or anti-tax rhetoric schemes to disrupt the tax administration process. CI has partnered with Department of Justice and Office of the Inspector General for Tax Administration to create a working group to address this emerging threat."
On June 14, 2013, Raymond Leo Jarlik Bell was sentenced in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington to 8 years and one month in prison after having been convicted of five counts of filing false, fictitious, and fraudulent claims; 15 counts of assisting in filing false U.S. federal tax returns, three counts of mail fraud; and one count of criminal contempt. Bell and his wife Ute Christine Jarlik Bell (who was also convicted) were identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as being members of the “Sovereign Citizen” movement. In a news media release, U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan stated that Bell had "held himself out as a tax expert with contacts at the IRS—when both the IRS and a federal judge told him repeatedly that his conduct was criminal...” Durkan stated that Bell believed he was above the law and that Bell had promoted a fraudulent tax refund scheme known as "OID fraud." Bell's wife, Ute Christine Jarlik Bell, was convicted of four counts of filing false, fictitious and fraudulent claims.
On August 22, 2013, David Allen Brutsche and Devon Campbell Newman were arrested for plotting to abduct, torture and kill Las Vegas police officers in order to attract attention to the sovereign citizens movement. They reportedly attended sovereign citizen philosophy training sessions, bought guns, and found a vacant house for their activities. The two allegedly planned to torture and kill police officers and are alleged to have created videos explaining their actions and why officers had to die.  On December 12, 2013, Devon Newman pleaded guilty guilty to a lesser charge, conspiracy to commit false imprisonment, and was sentenced to one year of probation. The trial for Brutsche is scheduled to begin March 10, 2014.
"Public Enemy", an episode of the crime drama television program The Glades first broadcast July 15, 2012, depicted the sovereign citizen movement as a mixture of fraudulent promoters and sincere believers, whose proclivity for violence (Terry Nichols' links to the movement are explicitly mentioned) and for harassment by means of fraudulent legal motions intimidate professional law enforcement officers and civil service functionaries. It represented the movement as arguing that by changing one's name on birth certificates, driver's licenses and the like, one can reclaim one's status as a sovereign.