On February 6, the Federal Bureau of Investigation held a news conference about a growing problem faced by local law enforcement agencies. According to the FBI, police all around the country have been contacting the Bureau with requests for information and training on the sovereign citizen movement.
Over the next week, the online reaction to the Bureau’s statements ranged from confused to outraged. Conservative pundits were wringing their hands, fearing that the FBI is going to target their Tea Party readership as enemies of the state, while liberal pundits expressed glee that the FBI now considers Tea Party supporters to be domestic terrorists.
For example, conservative commentator Glenn Beck aired a 12-minute segment on his show last week in which he concluded that there is no such thing as a sovereign movement, since he’s never heard of it, and that the government is using this fictional group as a boogeyman in order to do nefarious things to Glenn Beck’s fans.
“I’m in the news business. I don’t even know who they are. Sovereign citizens?” — Glenn Beck
Alas, Mr. Beck, sovereign citizens do indeed exist. And sorry, both sides of the political battle field, they aren’t the Tea Party.
The good news for Beck is that the overlap between his fan base and the sovereign movement is probably minor. The bad news for the rest of us is that state and local law enforcement agencies are having a heck of time educating their officers about how best to identify and deal with this very real and potentially violent group.
So what’s the definition?
The short answer: a sovereign citizen is someone who believes that he or she is above all laws.
The long answer is a bit more complex.
Think about a law you don’t like. Any law, at any level of government. It can be a big law, like paying income taxes, or a tiny one, like licensing your pet Chihuahua with the county.
If you’re a member of the Tea Party movement, the solution to this bad law is to protest your opinion in DC and in other metropolitan areas, write angry letters to your Congressmen, and vote for politicians who agree with you that such a law should be scrapped as soon as possible.
If you’re a member of the sovereign citizen movement, your approach is a bit different. You start by looking for a combination of quotes, definitions, court cases, the Bible, Internet websites, and so on that justify how you can ignore the disliked law without any legal consequences. Be imaginative. Pull a line from the 1215 version of the Magna Carta, a definition from a 1913 legal dictionary, a quote from a founding father or two, and put it in the blender with some official-sounding Supreme Court case excerpts you found on like-minded websites. Better yet, find someone else online who disliked that same law and pay them $150 for a three-ring binder filled with their word salad research.
Et voilà, not only have you proven that you don’t have to obey the law you dislike, heck, it’s your patriotic duty to disobey it, and anyone who tells you otherwise is just plain un-American and is probably part of a world-wide Jewish conspiracy to ensure that Chihuahuas are slaves to the US government.
When you can pick and choose which laws to put through your special blender, you are effectively putting yourself above all laws.
So why are they a problem for state and local police?
Sovereign citizens are true believers. They generally entered the movement by buying into a scam or conspiracy theory that not only promised them a quick fix to their problems, but wrapped such solutions in a heavy layer of revolutionary rhetoric. Once a sovereign feels the flush of excitement and self-importance that comes from acting as the David to the U.S. government’s Goliath, they know, with all of their hearts and souls, that their research is correct, that their cause is just, and that anyone who disagrees with them is a criminal who deserves to be punished.
These sovereign citizens are also doomed to failure; the tax collector, prosecutor, and judge have all heard these same legal theories dozens of times already and understand that they are bogus.
When a person believes his cause is just, yet he meets failure over and over and over again, there comes a point where he has to make a decision: he can admit his theory is wrong and walk away, or he can fight dirty.
Non-violent retaliation against government employees and law enforcement is the most common response, and can take the form of filing false liens, filing bogus Forms 1099, sending threatening correspondence, suing government employees for millions of dollars, and cyber-stalking individuals in government who disagree with the sovereign’s legal theories.
Some sovereigns plot a violent revenge, hoping to inspire others in the movement to reach their breaking point sooner. For example, after twenty years of attempting to persuade the IRS and the Tax Court that his blender salad of legal theories was accurate, in 2010, private pilot Joseph Stack flew his airplane into an IRS building in [entity display="Austin" type="place" active="false" activated="true" deactivated="true" key="tx/austin"]Austin[/entity] Texas, killing one tax collector, and injuring thirteen others.
“I saw it written once that the definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over and expecting the outcome to suddenly be different. I am finally ready to stop this insanity. Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well.” — Joseph Stack’s suicide note
Other such planned events have included bombings, shootings, murders, and armed standoffs.
Most sovereigns who act violently, however, have no grand plan in place; they simply lash out when they’ve failed one too many times. Some commit suicide, but for most of them, the final straw can be something as small as being pulled over by a highway patrolman for having a busted tail light or something as big as being evicted from their home when the bank forecloses on their property.
Since most people don’t have any direct contact with government other than with local law enforcement, officers are at a particularly high risk of bearing the brunt of sovereign citizen anger.
Why do officers need training?
On the surface, sovereigns believe some pretty outrageous things, and to an outsider, their legal theories seem fairly silly. Up until the recent wave of violence, most police officers who encountered sovereigns found them more amusing than anything else. Following recent police shootings in Arkansas, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania, officers now need to rethink their opinion of this group.
Also, sovereign citizens don’t call themselves that. In fact, if you ask a person if she is a member of the movement, she is likely to respond that the “sovereign citizen” label is an oxymoron, and that she is an individual seeking the Truth. She may then launch into a ten minute lecture about 18th century ideals of individual sovereignty. A non-sovereign simply answers, “No.”
Perhaps the most difficult hurdle for law enforcement is dealing with stereotypes. The first generation sovereign movement (from 1970 to 1995) was comprised mostly of middle-aged, high-school educated, white men with some military background, and hard-right, often racist values, located mostly in in rural communities west of the Mississippi. Today, the second sovereign wave (1999 to present) can include anybody: black, white, rural, urban, Asian, Hispanic, young, old, armed, unarmed, male, female, conservative, liberal, semi-literate, college-educated, from any walk of life. For example, dentists, chiropractors, and even police officers all seem drawn to the movement in recent years.
Sovereigns are also difficult to identity because there is no membership group for them to join, no charismatic leader, no organization name, no master list of adherents, and no consistency in the schemes they promote and buy into. There are hundreds of sovereign legal theories being peddled in seminars, in books, and on the Internet, and many of these theories contradict each other.
The sovereign citizen movement is big and is growing fast, thanks to the Internet. There are an estimated 300,000 people in the movement, and approximately one third of these are what I would call hard-core believers – people willing to act on their beliefs rather than simply walk away.
While there is no guarantee when it comes to officer safety, police departments do indeed need to teach their front-line officers how to identify sovereign markers and take appropriate precautions in case a particular encounter becomes a sovereign’s “final straw.”