'Sovereign Citizens' Fight the Law — and the Law Wins
It has been a losing season for self-professed "sovereign citizens" trying to claim that government has no jurisdiction over them. They keep digging deeper holes for themselves in quixotic confrontations with authority over everything from taxes to traffic tickets to code enforcement. But that has not been enough to slow the growth of the antigovernment movement.
In one of the first cases of its kind, 12 sovereigns in North Georgia charged with stealing properties worth millions of dollars — including mansions and a strip mall in Atlanta's wealthy Buckhead neighborhood — are being prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. RICO laws were originally drafted to fight organized crime but now are sometimes applied to other forms of criminal enterprise.
Authorities say the suspects fabricated quitclaim deeds transferring ownership of the properties to themselves, then filed the phony paperwork with the courts. They also filed baseless property liens and lawsuits against government officials who tried to have the documents removed.
The Georgia property theft cases are only the most recent manifestation of a movement that has swelled rapidly in the last two years, affecting most major law enforcement agencies. Since the murder by sovereigns of two West Memphis, Ark., police officers last spring, the movement has drawn more and more attention. Here's a sampling of other recent sovereign cases:
In March, self-declared sovereign citizens Tony and Micaela Dutson of Tigard, Ore., each received 10 years in prison for evading $7 million in federal taxes through the use of fraudulent trusts and bogus financial instruments, and for filing lawsuits and liens against the investigators who pursued them. In January, a federal grand jury in Detroit indicted David A. Cusumano and Henry Nino on 14 counts of obstructing Internal Revenue Service laws, including the use of worthless "bills of exchange" to pay their taxes. Denver airline pilot Jack Wharton Thomas, who had argued that his income didn't qualify as taxable "wages," was sentenced in January to 10 years' probation for tax evasion and fraud. A federal judge permanently barred Curtis L. Morris of Elizabeth, Colo., from preparing tax returns for others after finding that he filed 149 fraudulent federal returns on behalf of clients claiming $56 million in refunds. The scheme relied on the "redemption" theory, a sovereign belief that taxpayers can access secret Treasury accounts containing millions of dollars.
From left to right: Ulster County "sovereign citizens" Ed Parenteau, Jeffrey Burfeindt and Richard Ulloa
Three sovereigns — one who had been ticketed for driving without a license and two who had been arrested for trespassing at a foreclosed house — bombarded police, government officials and bank executives in Ulster County, N.Y., with bogus liens and fraudulent invoices totaling $1.24 trillion. Richard Ulloa was found guilty of seven counts of mail fraud in the case in December, and in January, Jeffrey Burfeindt and Ed-George Parenteau pleaded guilty to mail fraud charges. Andrew Isaac Chance of Clinton, Md., was charged with filing a bogus multibillion-dollar lien against a government employee and filing fraudulent tax returns seeking $900,000 in refunds. Chance had already served a 27-month sentence after a 2007 conviction for filing improper tax returns. Roderick and Amber Moore of Kansas City pleaded guilty in January to filing masses of false sovereign-style paperwork in an attempt to discharge $220,000 in debts. Michael Howard Reed and Gregory A. Davis, who claimed to be members of an unrecognized Native American "tribe" — the so-called Little Shell Nation — were sentenced to prison in Bismarck, N.D., for filing false liens against a federal judge and prosecutor. Reed was also convicted of threatening a judge.
An Easton, Conn., woman who says she is a member of the Moorish Science Temple, Fabiola Is Ra El Bey, in January declared her home an independent country — and thus not subject to taxation or foreclosure. Two Childersburg, Ala., men, Gary Wayne Presley and Michael Donald Wilsey — both of whom claim to be citizens of the Central Assemblies Union of the Several States of the Union of the States of the United States of America — were arrested for filing false foreclosure documents against another man's property, conspiracy and using "sham legal process" in a case that began with traffic violations. In February, a Sarasota, Fla., homicide detective, Tom Laughlin, was fired after renouncing his U.S. citizenship and claiming he was no longer subject to federal law and not required to pay taxes.
In Natrona County, Wyo., officials battled for months to force Ed Corrigan to clear debris, broken-down vehicles and other junk from the property he occupies. Corrigan refused to recognize the authority of the county and court, though he appeared in court and represented himself. He has refused to pay a $143,840 fine levied by a judge against him in May 2010, as well as an additional $52,120 in October. In November, the county finally decided to clean up Corrigan's land and send him the bill. But a contractor suspended the work four months later after finding toxic asbestos among the debris.
A Clayton County, Ga., SWAT team in March evicted sovereign citizens Gideon and Deborah Israel from a home they had occupied for more than a year, after the couple flooded the county with fraudulent paperwork seeking to block their eviction.
William Foust of Coconino County, Ariz., fought a $115 traffic ticket in December, claiming state and local authorities had no authority over him. He ended up in jail on contempt of court charges, with his fine increased to $1,052. Also in December, Douglas Baldwin of Del Norte County, Calif., claimed sovereign status and turned a traffic violation into jail time by violating a court order and resisting a peace officer. Christopher Cannon of Lake County, Ind., went to jail pending trial after claiming that as a member of the Moorish Nation, he wasn't subject to laws requiring a valid license tag on his car.