How the Sovereign Citizen Movement Works

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 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.