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A close-up of a car with a sign in place of a license plate reading, in part 'Private postmaster without the United States.'
A 2010 photo shows an unofficial license plate on a vehicle owned by an Ohio resident who was later convicted on federal charges connecting him to ‘sovereign citizen’ movement activities. AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

Modern-day outlaws, ‘sovereign citizens’ threaten the rule of law

In May 2024, an Oklahoma man was arrested and charged with kidnapping and murdering two women, becoming the fifth member of an anti-government group called “God’s Misfits” to face such charges.

With the investigation still underway, details about God’s Misfits remain scarce. The group’s members may be part of the so-called “sovereign citizen” movement – people who believe they owe no allegiance to any government and are not required to obey laws.

My research into sovereign citizens has found they have long been active in the U.S. and other countries. At the core of their beliefs is the denial of the government’s legitimacy. They commonly do not register their vehicles, acquire driver’s licenses or car insurance, or pay taxes. And they pose a significant threat to the public.

Harassment and abuse

One threat they pose is “paper terrorism,” which involves harassing public officials with legal threats to intimidate them. Sometimes officials are targeted because they arrested or prosecuted someone from the movement.

This method involves filing fake deeds and liens against public officials the sovereign citizens think wronged them. County recorders are sounding the alarm.

This type of act – a form of fraud that can be illegal – is rare nationwide but common in some places, local and federal officials have said.

For instance, in 2023, a New Mexico man allegedly filed a US$20 million lien against property owned by federal employees he believed were connected with the termination of his Social Security benefits. All told, he has allegedly filed $1 billion in false liens against federal employees.

Federal prosecutors have charged him with retaliating against a federal employee by making a false claim. Court documents identify the man as a sovereign citizen who describes himself as a “private attorney general.” He is awaiting trial.

More violent threats

The FBI considers sovereign citizens a domestic terrorism threat.

In April 2024, a Utah man was charged in federal court with stalking after allegedly telling staff at the Salt Lake County Recorder’s Office that they had committed treason and the penalty was death.

Court documents show that the man has identified himself as a “sovereign citizen” and made quasi-legal claims that prosecutors characterize as arguments commonly used by sovereign citizens – claims that were dismissed by a judge as “frivolous and without merit.” Trial is set to begin July 1, 2024.

A man in an orange shirt holds his hands out to his sides.
Darrell Brooks, a sovereign citizen who represented himself in his criminal trial, was found guilty of killing six people by driving an SUV through a parade in Wisconsin in November 2021. Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP, Pool

Killings

Sovereign citizens have killed police officers and civilians. Darrell Brooks, who represented himself in court as a sovereign citizen, was found guilty in October 2022 of killing six people when he drove an SUV through a Christmas parade.

Dejaune Anderson, a self-declared sovereign citizen, is accused of neglecting her 5-year-old son so badly that he died of dehydration. Her trial is pending.

Traffic stops can be especially dangerous for police because sovereign citizens often will not comply with officers’ basic commands. At times, this tendency can lead to violence.

In April 2024, two police officers in Florida investigated a report of a man in a vehicle in a public park after the park’s closing time. The person identified himself as a “Moorish sovereign citizen,” a type of sovereign citizen who claims that people of African American descent are not subject to U.S. law because of a 1787 treaty between the U.S. and Morocco, which says nothing of the sort.

During the confrontation that ensued, the man allegedly shot and wounded the officers before being killed by police.

A new subgroup

Over the past several years, a new variation of sovereign citizens has emerged, known as American State Nationals. In my research, I learned that they have been congregating on social media and gathering at seminars. Their leaders teach traditional sovereign citizen ideology along with new methods that supposedly let them live outside the law.

For instance, leaders teach their followers that driver’s licenses, marriage licenses, Social Security cards, car registrations and voter registrations are “contracts with the government,” which to them form the basis for requirements that they obey laws.

American State Nationals are urged to cancel or rescind these documents by filling out a set of forms, which are sold by the seminar leaders for about $250, in addition to the $150 seminar fee. Then they are told to submit the documents to county recorders and even the U.S. State Department. They are told that doing so will remove them from the reach of the U.S. government.

A mug shot of a man.
Paul Grice is one of several sovereign citizens facing criminal charges related to two kidnappings and murders. Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation via Kansas Reflector

Paul Grice, the fifth member of God’s Misfits to be arrested in that Oklahoma kidnapping and murder case, reportedly sent his packet of paperwork by certified mail to Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state.

Perhaps paradoxically, American State Nationals are also told to acquire a federal document that group members call a “noncitizen national passport.” They believe this document gives them many special privileges, including no longer being a U.S. citizen and having immunity from U.S. laws. They believe this even though U.S. law applies to everyone within the borders of the U.S.

In reality, this document does none of what they think it does. The document, officially called a “Certificate of Non Citizen Nationality,” is really for use by people born in one of several U.S. possessions, such as American Samoa. Directly contrary to what sovereign citizens think, the document certifies that its bearer does “owe permanent allegiance to the United States.”

Sovereign citizens’ beliefs have yet to hold up in any court of law in the U.S. or overseas. As an Australian law school lecturer said of a case involving a sovereign citizen in Australia, “No court in Australia, no court in the U.S., Canada, anywhere that I’ve seen, has ever accepted the legal arguments raised by sovereign citizens.”

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