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Understanding the sovereign citizen movement: a guide for corrections professionals.

The sovereign citizen movement, which is active in all 50 states and part of Canada, has a growing presence in the criminal justice system. The movement has a negative impact on police, federal agents, judges, attorneys and correctional facilities. As more sovereigns are incarcerated, their impact will likely increase. The movement is growing, due partly to economic stresses felt by Americans who have lost jobs, face enormous debt or have property foreclosed. Although the movement has no centralized leadership or formal membership, it shares a core of beliefs that elaborately reinterpret history and give credence to a variety of conspiracy theories. Their worldview establishes rationalizations for committing a broad range of crimes.

Those who accept the sovereign core beliefs perceive state and federal government as fraudulent and illegitimate. They believe they have the right to defy laws and are no longer subject to police, courts, federal agencies or correctional agencies. Sovereigns often refuse to pay taxes, refuse to license vehicles, carry fake driver's licenses, pass bad checks and perpetrate numerous frauds on the public, government representatives and inmates. At times, their crimes are violent. Not only do they disrespect the law and its representatives, but they also take aggressive actions against individual representatives of government, most commonly using "paper terrorism"--the development of fraudulent paperwork to use against supposed enemies of sovereigns to punish and harass or mislead officials. Both individuals and agencies are targeted in such cases. Paper terrorism is being used against judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officers, county clerks, parole officers, IRS agents and prison staff. According to Maguire (1982), the rise of subversive groups is a growing phenomenon worldwide, capable of violence and other actions against foundational institutions of society.

Judiciary and law enforcement agencies are establishing programs to prevent and reduce the impact of sovereign paper terrorism, but the corrections field has not yet followed suit. This article examines basic ideology of the sovereign citizen movement, describes common patterns of their crimes, identifies methods of recruitment in correctional facilities, explains their appeal to inmates and offers some steps for reducing their impact on correctional agencies,

Core Beliefs of the Sovereign Citizens

Self-identified sovereigns describe themselves as "nonresident aliens" living upon the land, yet free of legal attachments to state and federal entities (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2008). They claim that the Magna Carta and the original U.S. Constitution give those born on American soil the right to complete personal sovereignty based on their interpretation of common law. Vehemently antigovernment in their outlook, sovereign citizens draw heavily on the writings of William Potter Gale and the Posse Comitatus, a Christian, anti-Semitic extremist group formed in the 1970s (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2008). According to Gale's revisionist history, once the U.S. left the gold standard, the government lost all legitimacy, so citizens gained the right to declare themselves "common law" citizens who are free from governmental authority. Most sovereign groups, except for the black separatist branch, now base their claims on unusual interpretations of biblical passages and the U.S. Constitution.

Roger Elvick elaborated their worldview by declaring that after the Civil War, the federal government entered into a secret conspiracy against the American people by creating the Federal Reserve System, which uses the projected lifetime earnings of every citizen as collateral against debts to foreign creditors. He proposed that these secret "straw man" accounts are established as soon as births are registered (Associated Press, 2010; deArmond, 1996; Sanchez, 2009). Elvick further claimed that since birth certificates use all capital letters in spelling the name of new babies, this signifies their straw man accounts. Those with such accounts are considered artificial people without human rights. He explains that the federal government was dissolved due to bankruptcy. As a result, the nation lost its sovereignty and became the U.S. Corporation, operating under the Uniform Commercial Code, or Admiralty Law (Advent of Deception, 2011; Glenn, 2009; Kapner, 2010). Sovereigns have two versions of when the government became illegitimate. One version is that the change occurred upon creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913. A second version is that the conspiracy began when the government abandoned the gold standard in 1933 (Durham 2007).

Many white sovereign groups also subscribe to racist beliefs that advocate a "two seed" theory of history. According to this theory, Eve gave birth to one son fathered by Adam, whose progeny became known as Adamites, or the "white race." Eve also bore a son fathered by the biblical snake in the garden of Eden, which sovereign groups argue was really Satan, whose progeny is the "black race" and who sovereigns consider to be inferior by nature (deArmond,1996). Though racist ideas have a persistent history in the U.S., it is extraordinary that these ideas are still promulgated in the 21st century.

According to sovereign belief, there are two types of people living in the U.S. Corporation: sovereigns who have freed themselves of ties to the U.S. Corporation, and those who became citizens due to passage of the 14th Amendment. Supposedly these citizens--which include blacks, immigrants and others who have not freed themselves from the government--are like slaves under the authority of Admiralty Law and liable for the national debt (Anonymous. 2011: Anti-Defamation League, 2010).

Native-born Americans can remove themselves from citizenship in the illegitimate U.S. Corporation through a process known as "redemption," which requires a person to send notice to government authorities that he or she is severing ties with the nation by filing paperwork and mailing back his or her driver's license, birth records. marriage license and social security card (Sanchez, 2009). To accomplish redemption, special language and documentation must. be filed. This has become a lucrative industry for some groups who hold seminars and sell DVDs and home study courses to the public, promising that redemption will free people of personal debt, taxes and the need to obey laws and allow them to gain access to their personal straw man accounts. Adherents also are told that redemption allows them to convene common law courts to bring their enemies to justice, and engage in forms of paper terrorism against, their enemies ( Southern Poverty Law Center, 2011). Training seminars are held all over the U.S., bringing in tens of thousands of dollars.

Conspiracy theories add to sovereign beliefs by claiming to explain world events and to enhance anger and fear toward government and its representatives. One major conspiratonal theme is that judges and attorneys know that state and federal governments are illegitimate, but go along with this secret for personal power and gain. Some sovereigns look for video and print stories of police excesses to suggest that police, acting in concert with the Department of Homeland Security, are targeting Christians for attack (Kapner. 2010: Realman2020, 2011). Perhaps the most widespread conspiracy idea shared by sovereigns is that martial law will be declared in the near future, as a means of ending civil rights, to control civil society by force. Conspirators are said to be members of secret socieities and powerful Jewish bankers who seek world domination in the coming New World Order, a fascist world government (; Realman2020. 2011). Notably, many sovereigns are members of or aligned with militia groups that practice military skills and collect weapons and materials for some future confrontation with government forces. Some sovereigns want to separate from the nation to form other nations such as the Montana Freemen, Republic of Texas, Christian Patriots and Black sovereigns.

Modern communications technology helps to broadcast their fringe beliefs via radio, videos, Internet, printed materials and social networking. As a result of sovereign citizens widely disseminating their ideas, which repeat and embellish the conspiracy theories they propose, sovereign beliefs have even been repeated by mainstream politicians. Anti-government rhetoric and conspiracy beliefs of sovereigns and other right-wing extremist groups are often repeated in social discourse today; on popular talk shows; and in speeches by some politicians who claim that. government itself is a problem, that the president is not really a citizen and similar claims (Steinbeck, 2012; Southern Poverty Law Center,2011; Santorum, 2012; Beck, 2012).

Crimes of the Sovereign Citizen Movement

There are a wide range of felonies perpetrated by "lone wolf' self-described sovereigns and groups of self-defined sovereigns whose crimes reflect motives deriving from their beliefs. For example, purposely writing bad checks supposedly drawn from one's straw man account is a frequent sovereign crime that derives from their belief system. There are four general types of criminal activity committed by sovereigns that are directed against government agents and the general public.

Paper terrorism. Numerous crimes are referred to as paper terrorism, or the development of bogus documents used to defraud. seek revenge and harass governmental authorities and agency staff members. For example, Steinbeck (2012) gives an account of Jeff Sandy. now in prison, who victimized a West Virginia sheriff by sending a letter to the IRS that accused the sheriff of never declaring large sums of income on his income tax returns. The resultant. IRS investigation ruined the sheriffs credit. for a time, and required that he prove himself innocent. Sandy also filed false liens on property belonging to federal judges. state police officers and court. magistrates, claiming these individuals owed him millions of dollars. Although it is illegal to file false liens in 27 states, once filed, false liens are difficult to identify and become part of the property's permanent record, making later sale of the property extremely difficult (Steinbeck, 2012). Such cases are common throughout the nation today. In fact, thousands of pages of undecipherable paperwork are tiled every month against attorneys, police, judges and many other officials, according to MacNab (2011). The National Center for State Courts recommends training for county clerks so that possible false liens can be identified early (Sanchez, 2009).

Another form of paper terrorism carried out by sovereigns is to vastly overpay household bills using fake checks. The idea is to pretend to overpay a bill so that the company will issue a refund check of real value before realizing that it was paid with a fraudulent check. The Treasury Department receives thousands of fake "sight drafts" each week, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (2002). Similarly, fake bank drafts and money orders are passed by sovereigns to pay for vehicles and houses, a practice they justify as a means to "capture your straw man" supposedly by drawing on money from one's personal secret Treasury account (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2002).

Fraudulent services to the public. Another common type of crime carried out by sovereigns involves fake services sold to the public for monetary gain. They produce millions of dollars of revenue for sovereign groups. Sovereigns sell fake malpractice insurance, file bogus deeds to claim ownership of homes, sell fake trusts, create fake incorporation papers and practice law without a license (Sanchez, 2009; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010c: Southern Poverty Law Center. 2012).

Training seminars to attain redemption are extremely widespread in all areas of the nation, costing attendees hundreds or even thousands of dollars. With plenty of ingenuity, many sovereigns have created real wealth by training people how to become sovereigns and promising to free them from taxes, debt and child support payments: stop foreclosure: and reveal ways to tap into their secret straw man accounts. Sovereigns hold conferences and town meetings throughout the country as well, selling items to unsuspecting attendees. Recently, even Google contributed funding to what was claimed to be a national conference, but which was a meeting in Indianapolis of sovereigns and other right-wing extremist groups. This raises an important issue: Sovereigns are more reflective of the general public than many suppose. Some are well-educated, middle class and sophisticated.

The movement makes excellent use of technology to present its ideas on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, radio talk shows and all forms of Web and print media. From these media platforms, they sell memberships in bogus Indian tribes and fake license plates, driver's licenses and other documents (United Washitaw de Dughah-moundyah, 2011; Antidefamation League, 2010).

Income tax fraud. The IRS estimates that there are at least 500,000 individual nonfilers of income taxes, but there may be more. The agency has only enough staff to prosecute a small segment of nonfilers, usually after many years of noncompliance. Because most nonfilers receive warning letters with an assessment of fines attached, some sovereigns tell prospective members that the agency can be ignored without consequences. Although many sovereigns have been prosecuted by the IRS, this is not widely reported in the media. Many individuals who attend sovereign workshops are in desperate financial crisis, perhaps rendering them more likely to believe what they are told by adherents. The IRS also receives false tax forms from members of the movement who are attempting to confuse or deceive agents. Federal law now allows imposition of a $5,000 fine against anyone filing an inaccurate tax return on the basis of claiming to be a sovereign (Internal Revenue Service, 2011).

Violent crimes. Occasionally, government representatives have been killed, wounded or assaulted by members of the movement. Terry Nichols, who was involved in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people and injured more than 680 others, and Jared Lee Loughner, charged with shooting Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killing six others, including Arizona Chief Judge John Roll, are examples of lone wolf attackers and are both identified as sovereign citizens. In another case, a sovereign piloted a plane into an IRS office. Fortunately, no one was injured. Many other incidents of less notoriety involve confrontations between governmental authorities and members of the movement. Dozens of law enforcement officers have been killed or wounded by sovereigns since the 1990s, often during traffic stops or in domestic violence disputes. IRS, FBI and drug enforcement agents also have experienced violent confrontation with sovereigns (Anti-Defamation League, 2010; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012).

Other violent confrontations have involved groups of sovereigns. For example, a Bank of America branch in California was taken over by 30 armed sovereigns posing as federal agents. In another incident, a group went to the homes of police officers and interrogated their spouses, claiming to be from a law enforcement agency.

Violence has been avoided in some cases by authorities defusing situations that might have become violent. According to Daryl Johnson, a former Homeland Security analyst, sovereigns have become a problem for several military bases in the nation because they conduct surveillance on bases, attempt to steal weapons and other materials, and plan assaults (Beirich, 2011). In one situation, a group sent messages to all 50 state governors, telling them to step down from office or be removed. Authorities have opted to not directly confront groups, but to build cases against individuals after careful investigation, as has been done in several cases against the Montana Freemen, whose beliefs parallel many those of the sovereigns (Batsell, 1997).

Sovereign Recruitment of Inmates

The Christian Identity movement, which is based on a notion of racism and white power, began actively recruiting former jail and prison inmates to their cause as a means to add membership. They provided bunkhouse-style living quarters in their rural Idaho encampments and attempted to make the former inmates hardcore adherents to their ideology and engage in criminal activities sovereign groups use to gain money and supplies (Glenn, 2009). Unsurprisingly, they found this method of recruitment not as successful as was hoped. Nevertheless, the sovereigns have partly embraced inmates as a source for recruitment and as a source of wealth.

Sovereign groups create their own churches with their particular ideology separate from mainstream Christianity. However, they have presented themselves to jail and prison authorities as religious volunteers wishing to hold services and establish study programs among inmate populations. Once permission is granted, they use this access to teach the sovereign beliefs and teach inmates how to attain redemption for a cost. One standard packet sold to inmates costs $22, according to an advertisement in Republic Magazine ( Seminars held in facilities likely have additional cost for inmates, during which they learn how to file bogus liens and fake petitions for early release from incarceration (Sanchez, 2009). The core beliefs offer inmates rationalizations for their crimes while demonizing criminal justice functionaries as either co-conspirators or stupid for supporting illegitimate governmental institutions (Anti-Defamation League, 2010).

Known sovereign-affiliated churches include the Moorish Science Temple of America, We the People, Embassy of Heaven and House of Israel (Anti-Defamation League, 2010). The Moorish Science Temple of America, affiliated with black sovereign separatists, teaches black inmates that they are Moors native to North America before the continents divided, and a legitimate separate nation (Southern Poverty Law Center, 20 10b). All of these groups teach techniques of paper terrorism against supposed enemies. During religious services, inmates are taught the elaborate reinterpretations of history, the Bible or the Koran. They are told that they have secret straw man accounts and ways to obtain funds from their account. They may feel friendship and acceptance from the sovereign "volunteers" as well. Realizing that many inmates lack close family ties and need approved placements to leave incarceration. sovereigns sometimes prepare fake paperwork offering placement, job offers and letters of support for inmates.

Limiting the Impact on Correctional Facilities

Staff training at all levels can serve to identify sovereign activity quickly, and may deter attacks on staff and other criminal justice personnel. Because sovereign reading material is widely available, it will likely enter correctional facilities. Books, pamphlets and tracts that initially appear to be religious in nature may be the first sign of sovereign activity entering correctional facilities. Republic Magazine and The Prison Packet are two prominent publications widely available online (; Sanchez, 2009). Once sovereign activity is discovered, facility managers need to be alert to attempts by sovereign groups to enter the facility as religious volunteers who seek to hold services for inmates. This avenue is used to recruit inmates and train them in their ideology and use of paper terrorist methods.

To counter sovereign access to inmates through churches, administrators should carefully vet volunteer groups. If research on the church or Indian tribe has no central, recognized hierarchy, caution should be taken. Sovereigns are well-practiced in presenting fake documents to support their claims. State law enforcement authorities may be able to confirm the presence of sovereign activity in the area.

Another element of staff training should cover observation of sovereign activity in the mail. The movement advocates a number of unusual writing practices that can signal sovereign activity. Inmates who sign documents only in red ink, use all capital letters in their names, add a copyright symbol after their names or use brackets around a Zip code likely self-identify as sovereigns. according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (2010d). Another indicator of sovereign activity involves paper terrorism. When inmates mail large packages of documents to county clerks or to courts, or unusual volumes of documents are mailed, this may indicate their attempt at paper terrorism against institutional staff or other criminal justice officials. Ideally. in those instances, it can be helpful to contact the state attorney general and county clerks to alert them to false filings of liens. Correctional staff should be trained to check for property liens if it seems possible that they may have been targeted by an inmate. Staff also should report to their superiors if they are targeted by the IRS for investigation since this is a common tactic. If fraudulent claims are made in any form against correctional staff, the state or federal attorney's office should be notified and, when possible, disciplinary action should be initiated against inmates engaging in such practices.

Time to Deal With the Movement

The sovereign citizen movement is a real and growing presence in the U.S. Operating in all 50 states, in both urban and rural areas, the movement challenges legal authority through direct action against governmental authorities, including in prosecutors, police officers, judges. court clerks and corrections personnel. A central tenet of their belief system is that state and federal governments have lost legitimacy and collude with international conspirators seeking to create a New World Order or a fascist world government. There are three branches of the movement, but all three believe they have a right to ignore laws. Furthermore, they believe criminal justice agents either act out of malice as part of the conspiracy they dislike, or are mindless followers of the conspirators.

The growth of the movement is described as "explosive," according to Patrik Jonsson, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor (2011). The movement is spurred on by the weak economy and people in deep financial crisis due to lost employment, business failure and home foreclosures. As more sovereigns enter the nation's jails and prisons, it is likely that sovereign activities will increase. Some activity has been reported in correctional facilities already. Recruitment of both white and black inmates into the movement can be attractive to offenders because promises of early release and placements in the community are offered. Posing as legitimate religious communities, sovereigns use access to inmates to teach their peculiar beliefs and justifications for ignoring law and authority.

There are ways correctional agencies and facilities can reduce and prevent the use of paper terrorism attacks on staff and other criminal justice authorities, but staff training is the key. Police, judges and courts are organizing and hold train ings for staff. The corrections field would do well to initiate its own means of protection. It is time for corrections professionals to prepare to deal with this growing movement.


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Shela Van Ness, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
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Author:Van Ness, Shela
Publication:Corrections Compendium
Geographic Code:100NA
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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