How the Sovereign Citizen Movement Works

Sovereign citizens use a variety of unconventional methods to subvert the law. Chris Ryan/Getty Images
Sovereign citizens use a variety of unconventional methods to subvert the law. Chris Ryan/Getty Images

Imagine that your life is a video game, and the enemy you're trying to defeat is the government. The government throws lots of obstacles at you, like restrictive taxes and laws. Most people must deal with these obstacles as part of getting through the game and avoiding penalties.

But not you. You can skip right over these obstacles because you know the cheat codes — special maneuvers and magic words that not only get you out of paying for your taxes, but also keep you out of jail and maybe even get you a windfall of cash the government's been hiding from you since you were born. All you have to do is sign your name a certain way, say the right words in court and file certain paperwork, and you'll win the game and live your life free and wealthy.

This scenario approximates the worldview of sovereign citizens. Members of the sovereign citizen movement believe that anyone can avoid various unpleasant aspects of life by using special legal loopholes. They use these loopholes to attempt to dodge taxes and avoid jail time, even when they've broken the law. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes sovereign citizens as a "strange subculture ... whose adherents hold truly bizarre, complex antigovernment beliefs. Sovereigns believe that they get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and they don't think they should have to pay taxes."

A closer look at the sovereign citizen movement reveals some of its byzantine legal tricks, ties to other anti-government organizations and flawed reasoning.

The Tenets of the Sovereign Citizen Movement

Sovereign citizens believe they are not subject to paying federal taxes. The IRS says otherwise. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Sovereign citizens believe they are not subject to paying federal taxes. The IRS says otherwise. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sovereign citizen claims seem like a wild tangle of complex legal theories, but they all boil down to a simple concept: Sovereign citizens believe they are not subject to the laws or authority of the federal government, but only to "common law" or "constitutional law," the law of the original and "rightful" U.S. republic before the 14th Amendment — which addresses U.S. citizenship rights and the validity of the U.S. government's "public debt" — was ratified [source: Berger]. This means they believe they don't have to pay taxes and aren't subject to court rulings, arrest, fines or any other duty or penalty imposed by the government.

Sovereign citizens claim there is a difference between a human being and the separate legal entity represented by that person's birth certificate or legal name. To them, all government statutes are contracts between the government and this legal entity, which sovereign citizens refer to as a "straw man." Therefore, the human — not the straw man — is not subject to those statutes. Sovereign citizens are cautious of "creating joinder" between their human self and their straw man, which might happen because they register for a government service, accept a bill from the government or accidentally sign their name the way it appears in legal documents and tax paperwork. A sovereign citizen named Debbie Smith, for instance, might only refer to herself as "Debbie of the family Smith" or sign her name in an unusual way, like }}Debbie,,,Smith{{.

Many sovereign citizens believe that county sheriffs are the highest legal authority allowed in the U.S., and that state and federal police are illegitimate [source: Goetz]. They deny the authority of the U.S. federal government, or even the lawfulness of its existence. Another common claim of sovereign citizens is that they are not citizens of the U.S. (or whatever nation they reside in), but rather are separate, independent sovereign nations; citizens of such a nation; or citizens of a state or province. Some sovereign citizens claim to be citizens of a religious "nation" subject only to the authority of God.

The redemption movement is an offshoot of sovereign citizenry. According to adherents of this movement, the U.S. government issues everyone a birth certificate when they're born, creating the "straw man" legal entity that represents them. But furthermore, the movement claims, the government creates a bank account for each straw man and stocks it with $630,000. It's possible, sovereign citizens say, to use these funds to pay debts (especially tax debts) by filing a bunch of documents and sight drafts, which basically means writing checks drawing on this mysterious, unproven $630,000 account [source: Tremblay].

Even though sovereign citizens' beliefs may seem dubious at best, the movement is rooted in a history of groups with anti-government and anti-tax ideologies.

The History of the Sovereign Citizen Movement

protestors in demonstration against the ATF
Protesters participate in an demonstration against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in Waco, Texas, 1993. Anti-government sentiment escalated after violent confrontations between right wing groups and the federal government. J.DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images

Sovereign citizens are not a single organized group. Multiple factions, groups and individuals believe in sovereign ideology but are not otherwise connected. For most of its history in the United States, the sovereign citizen movement has been associated with right-wing, anti-government, white supremacist and Christian ideologies, to varying degrees.

The sovereign citizen movement began in the 1970s and grew from an extremist group called Posse Comitatus (a common-law legal term meaning "the force of the county"), which coalesced around right-wing, anti-government ideas in Oregon, although it had a presence in California and Wisconsin as well. The group's members maintained that the county level of government is the highest authority, that people can declare themselves sovereign and free of federal government control, and that income taxes are illegitimate. They also espoused anti-tax, racist and anti-Semitic ideas. The Posse's anti-government tactics spread and were adopted by different groups, like adherents of the racist, anti-Semitic hate group Christian Identity and sovereign citizens, as the movement's popularity rose and fell. Some form of sovereign ideology exists in most English-speaking countries — outside the U.S. it is more commonly known as a "freemen on the land" ideology, but the core beliefs and tactics are essentially the same.

In many cases, sovereign citizens employ violence to demonstrate their beliefs. Perhaps the most infamous violent incident involving sovereign citizens is the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Terry Nichols, one of the perpetrators of the bombing, had used sovereign citizen tactics in court cases and attempted to renounce his citizenship in the years prior to the bombing. In a separate incident, Gordon Kahl, a member of Posse Comitatus, killed three federal officers and was killed in a subsequent shootout in 1983. In fact, there have been numerous accounts of sovereign citizens murdering law enforcement officials or plotting to murder police officers and judges. The FBI's counterterrorism unit even declared sovereign citizens "a growing domestic threat to law enforcement" [source: FBI].

In the United States, several incidents of government agents engaging in armed conflicts with right-wing groups or families have even strengthened the popularity of the sovereign citizen movement in recent years. The Ruby Ridge (1992) and Waco, Texas (1993) standoffs are the most notorious, but the anti-government Montana Freemen had a months-long standoff with FBI agents in 1996, and militants conducted an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. Although not all of these events were directly tied to the sovereign citizen movement, they incited an increase of anti-government sentiment.

Sovereign citizen beliefs have experienced a resurgence since the early 2000s largely because the ideology has been marketed to and adopted by groups other than right-wing extremists. Sovereign citizen tactics, stripped of white supremacy, Christian and anti-Semitic sentiments, can appeal to anyone of any race or religion [source: Goetz].

But how do sovereign citizens reach the point where they think writing in a certain color of ink or insisting to a judge that they are "not a person" are sound legal tactics? The justifications for their unusual claims follow a chain of faulty logic that we'll break down in the next section.

The Reasoning Behind Sovereign Citizen Claims

gold bars
Many sovereign citizens find significance in the fact that U.S. money is no longer backed by gold. MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

Not every splinter of sovereign citizen ideology believes the same things, but in general the movement is built on detailed interpretations of language written into laws and documents like the Constitution, court decisions and international treaties. Sovereign citizen logic usually draws a web of intricate connections between these various documents, and it bears a strong resemblance to the reasoning of conspiracy theorists. Sovereign citizens' claims that the U.S. is secretly controlled by foreign powers and that the government is "tricking" people into becoming citizens are, in fact, conspiracy theories.

But the justifications for sovereign citizens' beliefs are nebulous. One line of sovereign thought suggests that the United States is a corporation, not a country, and that all laws, including criminal laws, fall under the laws of the sea and international commerce, or admiralty law. By viewing all laws through the lens of commercial law (maritime and otherwise), sovereign citizens can frame every legal matter as a contract dispute. Since contracts can't be upheld if both parties didn't enter voluntarily, sovereign citizens claim they're not subject to laws as long as they rigorously maintain their refusal to enter into the contract. This helps explain why they sign their names unusually and refuse to acknowledge legal notices or bills.

Some sovereign citizens also find great significance in the fact that the U.S., along with virtually every other nation, took its currency off the gold standard in the 20th century. This means that currency the U.S. issues does not represent a real amount of gold for which it can be exchanged. Sovereign citizens interpret this to mean that the U.S. is in bankruptcy and used its citizens as collateral for foreign debt. So, according to them, the U.S. is no longer able to uphold, enter into or enforce contracts, and anyone aware of this supposed "secret" is no longer required to follow U.S. laws. Alternately, the lack of gold backing means U.S. money isn't "real" money, and therefore not taxable [source: Berger].

Then there's the matter of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Sovereign citizens argue that the first line — "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside" — makes all U.S. citizens slaves to the government by overriding state laws with federal power. Therefore, they conclude, they can simply file paperwork with their county government renouncing the amendment, or that part of the amendment, and be free from the legal strictures that bind American "slaves" [source: Morton].

There are too many legal justifications for sovereign citizen claims to recount them comprehensively. Why are there so many? Because sovereign citizen ideology tends to assign invalid meaning to archaic laws or obscure texts. So, no matter what kind of trouble sovereign citizens get into, they can claim they are immune to it. But the legal system doesn't really recognize this philosophy.

How Government Officials Respond to Sovereign Tactics

There are many accounts of sovereign citizens arguing with police officers or resisting arrest. Spencer Grant/Getty Images
There are many accounts of sovereign citizens arguing with police officers or resisting arrest. Spencer Grant/Getty Images

Legal authorities react to sovereign citizen tactics with annoyance and amusement (and, in at least one case, a stun gun). We could not find a single instance of someone avoiding taxes, debt or jail by using sovereign citizen tactics. The history of the sovereign movement is a catalog of people who ended up in jail or paid hefty fines. Every court case we reviewed in which people used sovereign tactics ended in failure for the sovereign citizen [sources: Segall, Goetz, Ovalle, Roman, Gavin].

There's one overriding flaw in all sovereign citizen tactics: the belief that the government can only rule by consent. This idea does underpin the concept of democracy and dates back at least to the first century B.C.E. [source: Cicero]. However, it's only true in the broad sense. It does not apply to day-to-day interactions with the government. Whether it's just and fair, the government has the power to compel people to do what it says because it has police powers and prisons to back up its demands. If an officer wants to arrest you, or a judge and a prosecutor want to fine you and send you to jail, there is no trick or argument regarding your citizenship that will get them to concede.

But if you're looking for a more detailed rebuttal of sovereign citizen ideology, the IRS has done so in a long document regarding sovereign tax arguments. It's heard all of the arguments before, and it cites numerous statutes (like sections of the Constitution and Internal Revenue Code) and case law examples (like Helvering v. Mitchell and United States v. Schiff) to prove the illegitimacy of such arguments. The message of the document, titled "The Truth About Frivolous Tax Arguments," can be summed up in the following excerpt:

"The 14th Amendment establishes simultaneous state and U.S. citizenship. You can't opt out of a Constitutional amendment. You can't try to redefine 'person' or claim the government is illegitimate. If you do these things we will fine you, and if you refuse to pay your taxes or the fines, you'll go to jail."

John Rooke, a justice of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench in Canada, also disassembled various sovereign beliefs after encountering them in a divorce case involving Dennis Larry Meads. (Meads abandoned his sovereign tactics in that case.) While Canadian law differs from U.S. law in some ways, Rooke's decision in the case is a wrecking ball for some of the more common sovereign tactics:

"When reduced to their conceptual core, most OPCA [Organized Pseudological Commercial Argument] concepts are contemptibly stupid. Mr. Meads, for example, has presented the Court with documents that appear to be a contract between himself, and himself. One Mr. Meads promises to pay for any liability of the other Mr. Meads. One owns all property, the other all debts. What is the difference between these entities? One spells his name with upper case letters. The other adds spurious and meaningless punctuation to his name" [source: Rooke].

Sovereign citizens' unbelievable views and extraordinary track record of legal failure force one to ask: Why would anyone still believe in this stuff? We'll tackle this question in the next section.

Why Do People Believe Sovereign Citizen Ideology?

People who buy into sovereign citizen ideas generally fall into three categories:

True Believers. People in this group have strong anti-government beliefs, and they use (or create) sovereign citizen legal theories to justify their refusal to cooperate with a government they staunchly hate. They really believe the wild conspiracies about the government being controlled by Jews and secret treaties.

The Financially Troubled. Sometimes people run into money trouble. They fall behind on their taxes, rack up a ton of credit card debt or have medical bills they can't possibly pay. When they stumble across sovereign citizen ideology, it seems like a magic wand. By simply saying certain words in court or filing papers with the county renouncing the 14th Amendment, they believe they can instantly be free of the crushing debt that keeps them awake at night.

The Gurus. These sovereign citizens sell instructional videos and books to the Financially Troubled. Some of the Gurus are also True Believers, but it's likely many of them use the promises of sovereign citizenship solely to make money.

In his refutation of sovereign citizen tactics, Justice Rooke noted that sovereign tactics are intentionally as complex and arcane as possible. This plays well for both the conspiracy theorists, who claim to know important secrets about the world, and for people with money trouble, because it suggests they need to pay a guru to help them understand baroque legal maneuvers [source: Rooke]. If you're $100,000 in debt, why not pay $1,000 for some DVDs that will explain how saying "I'm not a person" and signing your name with your footprints in blue ink will get you out of paying the bill?

There's one other factor to consider regarding sovereign citizen tactics: Even the True Believers know these methods probably won't work. For many sovereign citizens, confronting judges and police officers with their legal theories is a performance. Their hope is that once the rest of the world sees the "injustice" that happens as a result, like a fine or jail time, it will rise up and overthrow the corrupt government.

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Sources

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