How the Sovereign Citizen Movement Works

The History of the Sovereign Citizen Movement

protestors in demonstration against the ATF 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.