How the Sovereign Citizen Movement Works

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

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.