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.

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Robert H. Adams
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