United States: Sovereign Citizens - The Battleground

Who they are

The so-called sovereign citizen movement is a loose confederation of individuals with a collective belief that government, at essentially all levels, is involved in a conspiracy to deprive them of property and essential rights. There is no formal organizational structure for this movement. Rather, groups of individuals generally form based on geography or social circles. A network of communication, largely on the internet and through "seminars," is readily available for sovereign citizens to share beliefs, ideas, tactics, and strategies.

On the whole, they seem to be rather harmless (or hapless), although there are various reports of incidents of violence associated with the sovereign citizens. For example, the acts of Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing, the murder of three police officers in Memphis, and the airplane crash into the Internal Revenue Service Building in Dallas have all been associated with the movement.

What they believe

Due to the lack of an organizational structure, the term "sovereign citizen" can describe any number of unusual beliefs regarding the function and authority of government. What all sovereign citizens agree on, however, is that government at all levels has conspired to take away certain rights or freedoms for many decades. The underlying legal theories are varied. Many sovereign citizens argue that after President Franklin Roosevelt took the United States off the gold standard in 1933, money is no longer "real" and that the U.S has operated under commercial and admiralty law ever since. With this foundational belief, many sovereign citizens do not recognize the authority of local, state, or federal government as having authority to govern them. Instead, they claim to be "sovereign" over themselves. State and local governments are thought to be private corporations. According to this theory that governments are corporations and that the country is under commercial law, many sovereign citizens believe they have no responsibility to pay taxes or be subjected to licensing requirements to own or operate motor vehicles because they have made no "contract" with these various entities and therefore, they cannot be held accountable by parties with whom they have no contract.

Other beliefs are founded on convoluted principles of contract law and selected statutes from the Uniform Commercial Code. Members claim to be self-educated litigants who "study law" primarily from internet sources and discarded out-of-date books. Favorite and oft-cited treatises of sovereign citizens are Black's Law Dictionary and American Jurisprudence.

Common Tactics

Sovereign citizen tactics most often appear in creditor's rights lawsuits such as to enforce a promissory note or to foreclose on real property. Sovereign citizens use the court systems to engage in what has become known as "paper terrorism": filing scores of pleadings that are usually unintelligible and nonsensical that serve only to delay proceedings. The pleadings are typically improperly formatted documents that often consist of over one hundred pages, many of which are boilerplate that are copied and pasted from sovereign citizen web sites. For example, it has become common in foreclosure actions to see the sovereign property owner file lien claims such as mechanic or materialman liens. In response to a suit on a promissory note or other obligation to pay money, many sovereign citizens will claim to be their own lienholders through frivolous UCC-1 filings under the theory that they have lien priority over themselves and are therefore judgment-proof. In other instances, documents of conveyance such as mortgages, trust instruments, and deeds are falsely filed. In most instances, these filings are so poorly drafted as to be facially invalid but the existence of these filings slows the title search process or, at the least, give pause to a title insurer being asked to insure the title following foreclosure because of the prospect of frivolous litigation. Other tactics include lawsuits, not only against a corporate creditor, but also against the officers and directors of the institution individually, their legal counsel, and sometimes even the judges involved in the foreclosure action or subsequent action to recover possession of the property. A sovereign citizen might claim that the court has no authority over him because he has no contract with the court, or alternatively, he may demand that the court rule in his favor because he has a contract with the court. Sovereign citizen claims against creditors are usually based on alleged civil rights violations, racketeering statutes, fraud, and breaches of fiduciary duty, or other specious theories having no factual basis. In some instances, sovereign citizens file specious documents claiming liens against real property belonging to law enforcement officers and other public officials involved in service of process or ejectment actions.

Despite claimed victories, very few, if any of the theories advanced by sovereign citizens have succeeded on the merits. Where sovereign citizens do succeed is by clogging the court system with specious filings. Given the liberality that courts tend to accord pro se litigants, some courts have been reluctant to outright dismiss these frivolous and nonsensical claims, despite the obviousness of their inability to ever prove their claims. However, after giving these pro se parties their "day in court", courts will not hesitate to inform sovereign citizens why their meritless claims have failed. For example, in a recent district court opinion, Judge Richard Posner advised the pro se tax protestor that the British Stamp Act of 1765 did not relieve the defendant of his duty to pay federal income tax because, among other reasons, there were no federal taxes that the act could have relieved Americans from having to pay. See U.S. v. Hakeem El Bey, (N.D. Ill. February 20, 2015) ("If as is increasingly becoming apparent, the defendant refuses to refrain from injecting utterly irrelevant, patently inaccurate, and sometimes unintelligible contentions into this case, I will not be able to allow him to represent himself at the trial.").

Practice Tips

When faced with a sovereign citizen's frivolous arguments, be circumspect in your dealings but don't necessarily hesitate to be aggressive on your client's behalf. A perceived lack of aggression may be viewed as a sign of weakness by the sovereigns that will only be met with still more vitriol.

Become familiar with the theories and beliefs of the sovereign citizens to assist the court in an educational process of the tactics at play. Some judges have not had the experience of handling an action brought by or against a sovereign citizen, so be prepared to educate the court about the tactics often employed. Case law involving sovereign citizens against financial institutions and government officials is now widely available from jurisdictions throughout the country.

And above all, persevere. Many lawyers have experienced the frustration of dealing with pro se litigants. Sovereign citizens have raised the bar in the level of frustration they will seek to instill in you, your client and the court.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Robert H. Adams
In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions