As a radical movement grows and the FBI warns of violence, officials struggle to come up with adequate responses
The flap began on June 23, when half a dozen cows wandered onto Rodney Brossart’s land in Lakota, N.D., a tiny prairie town about 100 miles northwest of Fargo. Acting on his peculiar interpretation of open-range laws, Brossart refused to return the wayward beasts and instead claimed them as his own property.
The local sheriff disagreed. That’s when the trouble started with the Brossart clan.
Over the next three days, six family members would end up in jail. The sheriff says Brossart had to be Tasered when he defied deputies and that his daughter was taken into custody, too, for interfering with his arrest. The next day, Bossart’s three sons were arrested after pointing rifles at deputies. Two days later, his wife allegedly tried to mislead deputies during a search for illegal weapons.
What began as a seemingly minor matter had thus become the latest clash between law enforcement and antigovernment extremists known as “sovereign citizens.”
Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke knew the Brossarts were followers of another Lakota resident, Roger Elvick, one of the original gurus of the bizarre but remarkably resilient sovereign citizens movement. Adherents — estimated by the Southern Poverty Law Center to number about 300,000 nationwide — believe that individuals can simply remove themselves from the authority of local, state and federal laws, and follow their own rules instead.
The movement has caught fire in recent years as part of the resurgence of the broader “Patriot” and militia movements. Across the country, sovereigns are giving law enforcement officers, judges and other government employees fits. In September 2011, nearly a year and a half after two sovereign citizens murdered two officers during a traffic stop in West Memphis, Ark., the FBI took the step of identifying sovereigns as a potential domestic terrorism threat. In all, six law enforcement officers have been killed by sovereigns since 2000, the FBI says.
But it’s not only the potential for violence that has government agencies scrambling to respond — it’s paperwork. A favorite tactic of sovereigns is to file bogus property liens and other documents with the purpose of harassing their enemies, who are often government officials. They’re also known to engage in financial scams, claim unoccupied houses as their own, and file bogus tax returns claiming they or their clients are owed huge sums of money.
Now, with sovereign activity surging anew, an urgent push has begun to educate law enforcement officers, court officials, county clerks and others who are most likely to encounter them. Law enforcement associations have issued advisories on how to spot sovereigns and offered tips for responding. Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service, state legislators, attorneys general and professional organizations representing government recording clerks, counties and others have begun to devise methods to combat sovereigns.
The word is getting around.
Not long ago, police, out of ignorance or machismo, might have marched boldly onto a sovereign citizen’s property to serve warrants — and possibly walked headlong into a hail of unanticipated gunfire, as did two Abbeville, S.C., law enforcement officials who were fatally ambushed while confronting a family of sovereign citizens in December 2003.
Janke sought to avoid a similar miscalculation.
“We’re trying to reach out to the family to get them to surrender,” the sheriff told the Intelligence Report. “It’s not common for people to brandish weapons against law enforcement, and to have them all be family members is unique. [It tells me] they’re up to something, they’re planning something, they have some different beliefs. … We’re going to keep on doing what we’re doing. We’re meeting with a team of experts to find out the best possible way to resolve this.”
As of press time, the Brossarts had not surrendered — but neither had blood been shed.
Law Enforcement Responds
Sovereign citizen ideology traces back to the Posse Comitatus of the 1970s, a racist, anti-Semitic movement whose members denied the legitimacy of taxes and the authority of state and federal government. After fading in the mid-1980s, the ideology enjoyed a renaissance a decade later with the rise of the Patriot movement. The movement subsided again until around 2008, when it came roaring back stronger than ever — propelled by a moribund economy, the efficiency of the Internet in quickly spreading and legitimizing radical ideas and the once-unimaginable elevation of a left-of-center black man to the presidency, a development that alarmed many far-right extremists.
Today, law enforcement officials say they are encountering sovereigns in every part of the country — squatting in abandoned houses, driving with strangely worded driver’s licenses and fake registrations, resisting arrest, clogging the courts with nonsensical filings, creating their own currencies, duping clients with empty promises of discharging tax debts or fighting foreclosures, and generally making a nuisance of themselves.
In just the last eight months, sovereigns in Arizona and Texas were shot, one fatally, after engaging in shootouts with police. Officials broke up alleged multimillion-dollar property-theft schemes run by sovereigns in Georgia and North Carolina. A sovereign in upstate New York was convicted of mail fraud after harassing officials with $1.24 trillion in bogus property liens. In Arizona, two prominent sovereign practitioners were indicted by a federal grand jury on multiple counts of property acquisition fraud for charging clients $500 to fend off foreclosure actions and then filing bogus court papers that accomplished nothing.
While most sovereigns don’t commit violence, the specter of it hangs over the movement — with good reason. Terry Nichols, the co-conspirator with Timothy McVeigh in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, was a sovereign citizen.
So were Jerry Kane and his 16-year-old son, Joe. On May 20, 2010, the Kanes were pulled over while driving on Interstate 40 through West Memphis, Ark., because of what turned out to be a fake license tag. As police officers Brandon Paudert and Bill Evans puzzled over Jerry Kane’s bogus paperwork, Joe leaped from the car with a blazing AK-47, shooting both officers to death in a stunning scene partially captured on the dashboard camera of a squad car. Both Kanes were killed a short time later in a shootout that seriously injured two more officers.
The murders turned West Memphis Police Chief Bob Paudert, father of one of the slain officers, into a national advocate for training officers about a threat few at the time knew existed. Paudert appeared in a training video produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center and distributed free to more than 80,000 officers and agencies. He soon retired and now devotes his time to giving seminars and lectures on sovereign citizens, mostly to law enforcement audiences.
“They’re still learning,” Paudert said in September. “There’s still a lot of ignorance. They just don’t know about the sovereign citizen movement.”
Law enforcement organizations are working to change that, as is the Southern Poverty Law Center, which offers training sessions on sovereigns and other extremists and has reached more than 5,000 officers this year alone.
In the wake of the West Memphis murders, the Regional Organized Crime Information Center (ROCIC) issued an Officer Safety Alert that examined the history of the movement, offered tips to help officers identify believers, and listed measures officers could take when they do.
Another professional group, the nonprofit Institute for Intergovernmental Research (IIR), began educating officers through its State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training (SLATT) program, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Its director, Richard Marquise, who retired from the FBI after 31 years of counterterrorism work, told the Intelligence Report that requests for SLATT training sessions have increased sharply of late because officers are hungry for information about sovereigns.
“We have put together a one-day sovereign citizen class — who they are, how you recognize them, the things that they do — to help cops,” Marquise said. “It goes beyond that street stop, because they’re into filing liens, lawsuits and everything else. We try to give [officers] the whole picture so they can protect themselves on the street, and then what you can do to protect yourself after they file the lawsuits against you.”
Jeff Sandy, sheriff of Wood County, W. Va., and a retired IRS criminal investigator who is an expert on “paper terrorism,” has conducted four training sessions on sovereign citizens for SLATT since mid-summer. “In just the past two months, conservatively, over a thousand law enforcement officers have been trained, and [officers in] every one of those classrooms had numerous sovereign citizens identified in their geographical areas,” Sandy said.
In September, the FBI’s Counterterrorism Analysis Section issued a warning about sovereigns in the monthly FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, noting that the agency considers sovereign citizen extremists a domestic terrorism movement. “If someone challenges their ideology (e.g., a standard traffic stop for false license plates), the behavior of these sovereign-citizen extremists quickly can escalate to violence,” the Bulletin said.
While good training can help cops deal with potentially violent sovereigns, coping with their penchant for fouling up the lives of their perceived enemies is more problematic. Sovereign “terrorists” have learned how to turn common government services into weapons of mass harassment — the bureaucratic equivalent of using a hijacked airliner as a bomb.
Filing a lien on real property is designed to be easy, to protect legitimate creditors like mortgage companies and contractors whose money or work is tied to land or real estate, said Carol Foglesong, president of the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks (NACRC).
While filing a false document is illegal, once it’s discovered it can’t simply be torn up and discarded, Foglesong said, because every lien, valid or not, becomes part of a property’s permanent record. If the filer refuses to withdraw it voluntarily, only a subsequent legal document — typically prepared by costly lawyers and approved by overburdened judges — can invalidate it. So the filing itself usually accomplishes the schemer’s goal of making a public official’s life miserable or setting up an attempt to extort money in exchange for removing the lien.
NACRC’s members, who record property documents in 3,600 jurisdictions across the nation, “have all had reason to become aware of the sovereign citizen movement over the last eight to 10 years,” Foglesong told the Intelligence Report. “[Sovereigns] spike up in an area, and then they sort of go away.”
The organization has launched an effort to keep its members updated on sovereign citizen activity, but it’s difficult to draw up a defense for clever people who feel no obligation to follow the rules. Sovereign citizens, Foglesong said, “know where the weaknesses are.”
Jeff Sandy, the West Virginia sheriff, has experienced tax-form harassment personally. A sovereign citizen he helped send to prison in 1999 filed a blizzard of bogus documents with the IRS claiming he was party to enormous transfers of cash to Sandy and others. The IRS, naturally, treated the documents as authentic, setting up a nightmarish mess that damaged the victims’ credit ratings. “I was sued for $1.1 million,” Sandy said. The suspect “starts filing IRS Form 8300 in the billions. He filed them on countless federal judges, magistrates, state police, you name it … hundreds of people … every employee that [he] had ever come in contact with that did not adhere to his beliefs or did anything against him for being a sovereign.”
Some States Act
During the sovereign flare-up in the 1990s, a man named Richard McLaren — the self-styled “chief ambassador” of the sovereign-style separatist group Republic of Texas — became known as a paper terrorism maestro.
The Republic believes the United States illegally annexed Texas in 1845 and agitates for its independence. McLaren and other group leaders — claiming the government owed them $93 trillion in “war reparations” — deluged Texas county and district clerks with hundreds, possibly thousands, of fraudulent judgment liens issued by so-called “common law courts.” They also tried to pass $3 million in fraudulent checks and placed bogus property liens against the state and state officials.
McLaren would later be sentenced to 111 years in prison after a six-day armed standoff with Texas Rangers that began when McLaren’s followers kidnapped and injured a neighboring couple.
Thanks to McLaren’s excesses, the Texas Legislature in 1997 passed a comprehensive false-lien law, which also outlawed fictitious courts and the fake summonses, judgments and complaints they issued.
Texas wasn’t alone. Between 1995 and 1999, 27 states adopted laws criminalizing the filing of property liens when no legitimate claim existed, according to a 2005 study co-authored by Donald Haider-Markel, chairman of the political science department at the University of Kansas. The study determined that these laws were adopted by states that experienced problems with false liens in the 1990s or bordered states that did.
In 2005, Texas went a step further, requiring any county clerk or secretary of state who suspects someone is attempting to file a fraudulent instrument to contact the county or district attorney’s office to verify its authenticity.
But that, in a way, illustrated the problem with trying to manage the mayhem caused by sovereigns.
“The intentions are good — [the fraudulent document] needs to be stopped before it gets recorded — but how does a recorder know?” asked Foglesong of NACRC, who also is assistant comptroller for Orange County, Fla. “We [in Orange County] have a population of over a million. We record 3,000 documents a day. I did not hire attorneys.”
This year, Arkansas passed a new false-lien law, and one has been debated in Pennsylvania. More states are likely to follow suit.
Still, sovereigns are likely to continue vexing police officers and government officials with their deliberate flouting of the law. What rules can be adopted to corral people who believe the rules don’t apply to them?
The FBI’s September bulletin captured the gravity of the situation and the threat to those most likely to encounter them. “The sovereign-citizen threat likely will grow as the nationwide movement is fueled by the Internet, the economic downturn, and seminars held across the country that spread their ideology and show people how they can tap into funds and eliminate debt through fraudulent methods. As sovereign citizens’ numbers grow, so do the chances of contact with law enforcement and, thus, the risks that incidents will end in violence.”