Sovereign citizens believe that they – not judges, juries, law enforcement or elected officials – should decide which laws to obey and which to ignore. Most sovereign citizens also don’t believe they should have to pay taxes. They clog up the courts with indecipherable filings and, when cornered, many of them lash out, retaliating through acts of paper terrorism and, in the most extreme cases, acts of deadly violence – usually directed against government officials. In May 2010, for example, a father-son team of sovereigns murdered two police officers with an assault rifle when they were pulled over on the interstate while traveling through West Memphis, Arkansas.
The roots of the movement are racist and antisemitic. It was founded by William Potter Gale, former member of the John Birch Society. Potter formed a group of antigovernment Christian Identity adherents who mistrusted state and federal officials. They believed that non-white people were not human, and that Jews possessed a satanic plot to take over the world. They identified themselves as Posse Comitatus, which is Latin for “power of the county” and centered around the idea that county sheriffs are the highest governmental authority.
Posse Comitatus is based on the Sheriffs Act of 1887, which allowed sheriffs to form a posse that would assist them in hunting down and arresting criminals. Potter’s posse believed they served under common law (laws based on their interpretation of the Bible), rather than civil law (legitimate laws formed by the American legal system).
The activities of Potter’s Posse, many of them crimes, included a refusal to pay taxes, filing property liens and committing violence against public officials. These actions, which were established by Gale’s group, have become customary in today’s sovereign citizens movement. What has changed since the movement’s inception is the white supremacist ideology that initially dominated it. Contemporary sovereign citizens hold varying racial ideologies and include a variety of people, most commonly white and African American.
The Sovereign belief system
The contemporary sovereign belief system is based on a decades-old conspiracy theory. Sovereigns believe that the American government set up by the founding fathers, under a common-law legal system, was secretly replaced. They think the replacement government swapped common law for admiralty law, which is the law of the sea and international commerce.
Some sovereigns believe this perfidious change occurred during the Civil War, while others blame the events of 1933, when the U.S. abandoned the gold standard. Either way, they stake their lives and livelihoods on the idea that U.S. judges and lawyers, who they believe are foreign agents, know about this hidden government takeover but argue against it, denying the sovereigns’ motions and filings out of treasonous loyalty to hidden and malevolent government forces.
Most sovereign citizens base their actions on a bogus U.S. history lesson, which goes as follows: Since 1933, the U.S. dollar has been backed not by gold, but by the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government. (In fact, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ended private ownership of gold in large amounts in 1933; Governments could still sell gold for dollars to the U.S. Treasury for a fixed amount after that, until that practice was ended by President Richard Nixon in 1971).)
According to sovereign citizen researchers, the government has pledged its citizenry as collateral, by selling their future earning capabilities to foreign investors, effectively enslaving all Americans. This sale, they claim, takes place at birth. When a baby is born in the U.S., a birth certificate is issued, and the hospital usually requires the parents to apply for a Social Security number. Sovereigns say that the government then uses that birth certificate to set up a corporate trust in the baby’s name – a secret Treasury account – which it funds with amounts ranging from $600,000 to $20 million, depending on the particular variant of the sovereign belief system. By setting up this Treasury Direct Account (TDA), every newborn’s rights are split between those held by the flesh-and-blood baby and the ones assigned to his or her corporate shell account.
Sovereigns citizens believe the evidence for their theory is found on the birth certificate itself. Since most certificates use all capital letters to spell out a baby’s name, JOHN DOE, for example, is actually the name of the corporate shell identity, also called a “straw man,” while John Doe is the baby’s “real,” flesh-and-blood name. As the child grows older, most of his legal documents will utilize capital letters, which means that his state-issued driver's license, his marriage license, his car registration, his criminal court records, his cable TV bill and his correspondence from the IRS all will pertain to his corporate shell identity, not his real, sovereign identity.
To separate from their corporate shell, sovereign citizens use a series of convoluted steps, often shared with them by more veteran sovereigns. This can include actions such as filing documentation with their secretary of state’s office declaring themselves sovereign, signing it with red blood or ink thumbprints, then having their new sovereign identity published in the newspaper.
To tap into the secret Treasury account, they believe exists they file a series of complex, legal-sounding documents. For decades, sovereigns have attempted to perfect the process by packaging and promoting different combinations of forms and paperwork. The only touted success stories are from sovereigns who were in fact committing fraud against the government or private companies by creating counterfeit or fraudulent and fictitious documents. These sovereigns are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
It is impossible to know how many sovereigns there are in the U.S. today, in part because there is no central leadership. Instead, there are a variety of nationwide gurus and local leaders with individualized views on sovereign citizen ideology and techniques. Their recommendations often include tax evasion, adverse possession (squatting on a property that does not belong to them) or ignoring laws regarding drivers licenses, vehicle registration or license plate possession. They base these activities on their belief that free men and women, as they call themselves, are not bound by the laws in question. Sovereigns assert they are traveling, not driving, since they are not transporting commercial goods or paying passengers. Those who are attracted to this subculture typically attend a seminar or two or visit one of the thousands of websites and online videos on the subject and choose how to act on what they have learned.
Since the late 1990s, an abundance of evidence suggests that the sovereign citizen movement’s growth has been explosive, although there have been no more recent IRS estimates because Congress in 1998 prohibited the agency from tracking or labeling those who file frivolous arguments in lieu of paying their taxes. But a conservative estimate of the number of all kinds of tax protesters today would be about 500,000.
Using this number and information derived from trials of tax protesters and reports from government agencies, a reasonable estimate of hardcore sovereign believers in early 2011 would be 100,000, with another 200,000 just starting out by testing sovereign techniques for resisting everything from speeding tickets to drug charges, for an estimated total of 300,000. As sovereign theories go viral throughout the nation's prison systems and among people who are unemployed and desperate in a punishing economy, this number is likely to grow.
The weapon of choice for sovereign citizens is paper. A simple traffic violation or pet-licensing case can end up provoking dozens of court filings containing hundreds of pages of pseudo-legal nonsense. For example, Donna Lee Wray – the common-law wife of Jerry Kane, who was half of the team that killed the two police officers in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 2010 – was involved in a protracted legal battle in 2010 over having to pay a dog-licensing fee. She filed 10 sovereign documents in court over a two-month period and then declared victory when the harried prosecutor decided to drop the case. The battle was fought over a three-year dog license that costs just $20 in Pinellas County, Florida, where the sovereign lives.
The size of the documents is an issue since already-swamped courts are forced to respond to them, but so is the nonsensical language the documents are written in. They have a kind of special sovereign code language that judges, lawyers and other court staff simply can’t understand (nor can most non-sovereigns). Sovereigns believe that if they can find just the right combination of words, punctuation, paper, ink color and timing, they can have anything they want – freedom from taxes, unlimited wealth and life without licenses, fees or laws. It’s the modern-day equivalent of “abracadabra.”
When sovereigns are angry with government officials, their revenge most often takes the form of “paper terrorism.” Sovereigns file retaliatory, bogus property liens that may not be discovered by the victim until they attempt to sell or mortgage their property or take out a loan. These liens can be for millions, billions or even quadrillions of dollars.
They have also perpetrated a number of illegal housing related money-making schemes. Sovereigns have fraudulently deeded empty homes to themselves that don’t legally belong to them, moved in and changed the locks. They have signed up for Section 8 as landlords for properties they do not own. They have talked homeowners in the midst of foreclosure into quitclaiming their property deeds to them and charged the homeowners fees to stop foreclosures they have no ability to stop. Over the course of four years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recovered $17 million from these sorts of sovereign citizen scammers who had been prosecuted for their crimes, according to a 2015 report.
Sovereigns file fake tax forms that are designed to ruin an enemy’s credit rating and cause them to be audited by the IRS. Starting in the mid-1990s, a period when the sovereign movement was also on the rise, states began to pass laws specifically aimed at these paper-terrorism tactics.
In April 2017, the state of Colorado cracked down heavily on sovereign activity by charging a group of sovereigns, known as the Colorado Eight, with racketeering. According to the state, eight members of a group, which ran its own common law courts, “collaborated with one or more of the other principals and/or complicitors as part of a long term scheme and endeavor to initially attempt to influence various Colorado-based public servants, including Colorado State and Municipal Court Judges, prosecutors, sheriffs, and other public officials who in their legal capacities had responsibilities related to a legal matter which involved a member of this enterprise.”
Bruce Doucette, the most prominent member of Colorado Eight, is best known for holding a faux trial in Burns, Oregon, that put public officials on trial. These officials had opposed the Bundy brothers occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Doucette was sentenced to 38 years in prison for his crimes. A co-defendant. Stephen Nalty, was sentenced to 36 years in prison, and another, Steven Byfield, was sent away for 22 years.
Most new recruits to the sovereign citizens movement are people who have found themselves in a desperate situation, often due to the economy or foreclosures, in search of a quick fix.
Others are intrigued by the notions of easy money and living a lawless life, free from unpleasant consequences. For many, it’s a political issue. They don’t like taxes, traffic laws, child support obligations or banking practices, but they are too impatient to try to change what they dislike through traditional, political means.
The sovereign group Republic for the United States of America (RuSA) successfully recruited members over the past decade by marketing themselves as sovereign Christians who were forming a government that would one day run America. Led by James Timothy Turner, from a small town in Alabama, the group spread its message nationwide forming chapters throughout the U.S.
Formed in 2011, the National Liberty Alliance (NLA) also recruited nationwide. Headquartered in New York and led by John Darash, the group focuses on creating common law grand juries.
When the Bundys, sovereign citizens who coordinated standoffs at their ranch in Nevada in 2014 and at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016, shared their ideologies with huge groups of antigovernment patriots, they reached other potential recruits. In 2018, Ryan Bundy ran for governor of Nevada on a sovereign citizen platform that included the right to travel. He lost the election, garnering only 1.4 percent of the vote.
Ryan Bundy is associated with Julie Embry of North Richland Hills, Texas. Embry helped him complete several legal filings using sovereign citizen terminology. Embry is a member of a group of faux marshals called the Continental Marshals for the Republic, whose members were often recruited by the sovereign group known as the Superior Court of the Continental united States (CuSA), which coordinated common law courts in various states.
The “Marshals” are meant to be the enforcement arm for common law courts. They make their own uniforms, fake badges and identification cards. According to their handbook:
In actual practice, the constitutional/continental marshal for the district, or state, primarily oversees court security, and has a unit of appointed deputies, including but not limited to, the serving and enforcement of all writs, warrants, presentments, indictments, etc., as provided by the grand jury, issued with signature and authority granted to a constitutional/continental justice. The constitutional/ continental marshals service also assists with court security and prisoner transport, asset forfeiture, and in seeking fugitives.
Some of the so-called marshals have taken their position very seriously. Four were arrested on Feb. 1, 2017, after they showed up at the Valencia County Detention Center in New Mexico, where their associate, Andrew Pantokai, was being held. They unsuccessfully attempted to use their status as marshals to break him out of jail.
That same year, in 2017, the QAnon conspiracy theory was born when messages from someone calling themselves “Q” appeared on 8chan. The conspiracy-laden messages influenced some of adherents to join the sovereign citizens movement. This occurred after sovereigns with online followings began making supportive remarks about Q on their social media pages and promoting their own posts with the Q-specific hashtag #WWG1WGA, which stands for Where We Go One We Go All.
In times of economic prosperity, sovereigns typically rely on absurd and convoluted schemes to evade state and federal income taxes and hide their assets from the IRS. In times of financial hardship, they turn to debt- and mortgage-elimination scams, taking adverse possession of properties, techniques to avoid child support payments, and even attempts to use their redemption techniques to get out of serious criminal charges.
While the techniques shared by promoters rarely perform as promised, most followers are nonetheless content to be fighting the battle, and they blame only the judges, lawyers, prosecutors and police when their gurus’ methods fail. On the rare occasion where they succeed in obtaining money through their schemes, it is based on criminal exploitation of a loophole in the tax or financial system, or outright theft, and their perceived success is often followed up with prosecution for the crimes they have committed. Many sovereign citizens have been charged, sentenced and imprisoned for their wrongdoing.
For many, their misguided membership in the movement is an immersive and heady experience. In a Feb. 13, 2012, Forbes piece, antigovernment expert J.J. MacNab said, “Once a sovereign feels the flush of excitement and self-importance that comes from acting as the David to the U.S. government’s Goliath, they know, with all of their hearts and souls, that their research is correct, that their cause is just, and that anyone who disagrees with them is a criminal who deserves to be punished.”
Members of the movement are not a homogenous group. What unites them is their belief that the federal government is illegitimate, and they have officially left its purview. Members use various means to pledge their allegiance to what they consider a legitimate jurisdiction. Many file legal notices announcing their intentions to change citizenship. Others give verbal or written oaths to the group they have joined and change their names to one advocated by the group or its leaders. Although individuals maintain that they are sovereign after completing these steps, none of these are legal ways to relinquish American citizenship, and the faux nations they join cannot provide them with legal citizenship either.
Once they have declared sovereign citizenship, most individuals will attempt to utilize it to their own advantage. Some refuse to apply and pay for state licenses, registration or insurance – or pay their traffic tickets. Some attempt to defraud the government or corporations by filing fraudulent forms or making falsities on legitimate forms that save or secure them money. Others attempt to exact revenge on public officials or private citizens through the use of criminal complaints or financial liens filed against those individuals.
These are the most prevalent activities used by sovereign citizens. But the similarities between sovereign citizens often ends there. Sovereign believers come in a variety of ethnicities and religions. Some live in urban areas while others are off the grid, living in rural areas. They all share core beliefs, but the leaders they follow and the ideas that animate them tend to differ widely.
These are the most commonly known types of sovereign citizens that exist in America, some of which have cross pollinated and fit within multiple sub-types:
Common Law Court and National Assembly Members: These individuals use a patchwork of misinterpreted old English law, constitutional text and Bible verses to form pseudo-courts, which they call common law courts, or entirely new governments, which they describe as assemblies. They believe these new governments will be put to use once our current government fails. They believe the U.S. court system is illegitimate and only utilize it as defendants or to enact retribution against individuals, public officials or government agencies. They bring their grievances, primarily against the state and federal government to their common law courts. These pseudo courts typically provide them with the outcomes they are looking for, which can be anything from bogus indictments, filing commercial liens to arrest warrants, multi-million or billion-dollar judgments or calls for execution against the person or government agency they are aggrieved at.
Constitutional Sovereigns: These individuals use the constitution to make claims that the federal government is illegitimate and overreaching its intended authority. They have used this belief to justify extreme and illegal acts against the federal government and its assorted agencies. The Bundy family is an example of this particular ideology. Claiming the government was tyrannically encroaching on their rights, they refused to pay their grazing fees, which were $1 million in arrears, and justified their use of armed occupation and protest as resistance to perceived tyranny.
Galactic Sovereigns: A small number of sovereigns hold a concurrent belief that friendly aliens will visit earth and they are actively planning for this occurrence or believe that public officials and other individuals are reptilian aliens. Many of these believers, and some additional sovereigns subscribe to a conspiracy theory called NESARA. This theory purports that 15 “trusted” members of Congress and President Clinton signed a bill in secret in the year 2000 known as the National Economic Security and Reformation Act. They think this law would have abolished the IRS and income tax, returned the form of constitutional law to America that sovereigns believe was secretly replaced by maritime law, end war and establish world peace. Sovereigns think powerful groups have kept this law secret through gag orders and sabotage, and when it looked like it would be publicly introduced on September 11, 2001, there was a coordinated an attempt to stop it.
The most prominent believers include Sheldan Nidle, Anna von Reitz and Destry Payne, co-leader of the sovereign group National Assembly.
Moorish Sovereigns: These individuals are both Moors and sovereigns. They believe they were America’s original inhabitants and are therefore entitled to self-governing, nation-within-a-nation status, claiming to possess territories within the United States made up of land they do not legally own. Members are almost always African-American. Their supposed “magic key” to exemption from the law is their claim that they are descendants of the Moroccan “Moors” and are thus subject to the 1786 Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship, which they believe gives them exemption from American law. They think their “indigenous” status provides them with similar privileges to American Indians.
Moorish sovereigns have their own set of gurus who they study and groups they can join, including the Washitaw and the United States of America Republic government. They also offer items for members to purchase, including fake identification cards and license plates listing the name of the territory they claim to belong to.
A tactic used predominantly by Moorish sovereigns is adverse possession, which involves squatting in foreclosed and other properties. They have been known to cause extensive property damage and create significant problems for rightful owners.
Some people who currently or previously identified as Nuwaupians, Nuwaubians and Yamasee Indian, all of whom followed Dwight York, have joined Moorish sovereign groups since York’s incarceration for transporting minors across state lines for sexual purposes and racketeering. York is serving a 135-year sentence.
Tax Protesters: These individuals, based upon their sovereign beliefs, refuse to pay taxes or file tax returns out of a mistaken belief that the federal income tax is unconstitutional, invalid, voluntary, or otherwise not applicable to them using one of a number of erroneous arguments. There are numerous gurus, such as the recently incarcerated Winston Shrout, who made a significant income from holding seminars and selling kits based on various bogus tax w theories before being arrested and incarcerated for his crimes.
Some sovereign citizens have turned to violence. When a sovereign feels particularly desperate, angry, battle-weary and cornered, his next government contact, no matter how minor, can be his final straw – and the resulting rage can be lethal.
In 1995, a sovereign named Michael Hill pulled a gun on an officer during a traffic stop in Frazeysburg, Ohio. Hill was killed.
In 1997, in Colebrook, New Hampshire extremist Carl Drega shot two officers dead and two civilians and wounded another three officers before being killed himself. In that same year in Boise, Idaho, brothers Doug and Craig Broderick were pulled over for failing to signal. They killed one officer and wounded another before they were killed during a violent gun battle.
In December 2003, members of the Bixby family, who lived outside of Abbeville, South Carolina, killed two law enforcement officers in a dispute over a sliver of land next to their home.
In May 2010, Jerry and Joseph Kane, a father and son sovereign team, killed two West Memphis, Arkansas, police officers who had pulled them over in a routine traffic stop. Later that day, the Kanes were killed in a shootout with police.
In April 2018, Travis Reinking, 29, shot up a Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee, killing an employee and three patrons. Reinking identified himself as a sovereign citizen in 2017 when he showed up at the White House and was arrested after demanding to see President Trump.
A July 2014 study by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism that looked at the perceptions about terrorist threats found that U.S. law enforcement noted that sovereign citizens pose the greatest threat. The Department of Justice considers sovereign citizens a domestic terrorism threat.
On July 17, 2016, Gavin Eugene Long, alleged to belong to the Washitaw Nation, killed three law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in an ambush.
On July 3, 2021, members of the Rise of the Moors, wearing tactical gear and carrying firearms, refused to comply with Massachusetts state troopers’ directions to drop their weapons and ran into the woods. A shelter in place order was issued and Interstate 95 was closed until police confirmed the threat had abated. Eleven members were arrested in the incident.