Detectives Kory Flowers and Rob Finch of the Greensboro, N.C., Police Intelligence Squad were both involved in tracking white supremacists when, a couple of years ago, a new threat started to show up on their radar.
Detectives Kory Flowers and Rob Finch of the Greensboro, N.C., Police Intelligence Squad were both involved in tracking white supremacists when, a couple of years ago, a new threat started to show up on their radar. After receiving phone calls from several officers whose routine traffic duties had brought them into contact with hostile drivers spouting bizarre nonsense about being exempt from U.S. laws, the detectives realized their county had become a destination for “sovereign citizens” — particularly self-proclaimed followers of Noble Drew Ali, a black separatist from the early 20th century whose “Moorish” ideology has been selectively adopted by many sovereigns.
Determined to protect their county against the avalanche of fraudulent property liens and other baseless paperwork (“paper terrorism”) sovereigns were filing against public officials they felt had wronged them, Flowers and Finch developed a comprehensive training system whose purpose was to arm officials with the information they need to combat the problem. The detectives, who have spent hundreds of hours interviewing sovereign ideologues, emphasize that it is not only police that need training, but clerks of court, registrars of deeds, district attorneys, judges, fire inspectors, and other public officials involved in enforcement.
The effort by Flowers and Finch comes as the number of sovereigns expands rapidly along with the larger antigovernment “Patriot” movement. The Southern Poverty Law Center has estimated that there are some 100,000 hardcore sovereigns operating in the United States, along with an estimated 200,000 more people who are dabbling in its bogus legal techniques. The number of Patriot groups, including sovereign organizations, has exploded in the last three years, from 149 in 2008 to 1,274 last year. The ideology, which was birthed by white supremacist groups and originally said only white Americans could be sovereigns, has expanded rapidly in recent years in the black community, typically among the black nationalist so-called Moorish groups, as well as in many other populations.
The Intelligence Report spoke with Flowers and Finch about what they’ve seen, what they teach, and what steps they think are needed to manage the problem.
Was there a specific incident that prompted you to look into the ‘sovereign’ movement?
KORY FLOWERS: We had two different traffic stops where our guys stopped sovereigns, and then minutes later other sovereigns were showing up and handing them documentation and talking about suing our officers, talking about immunity and aboriginal rights and various things. Our [officers], while they weren’t completely ignorant, were just overwhelmed, and they contacted us in the Intelligence Unit, hoping we had answers for them.
ROB FINCH: Then a couple of our guys got sued. We caught two different lawsuits in excess of $70 million each where the sovereign sued the officer, sued the officer’s direct supervisor, the police department, the police chief and the city of Greensboro. That caught the attention of some of our administrators who were beginning to pay attention, and really drove home our resolve to get dialed in on this movement and create some training to keep officers safe.
And you train police officers for the most part?
FINCH: Law enforcement is only one piece of this entire puzzle. If you don’t have the other elements of the criminal justice system or of government as a whole, up to speed, these guys are going to still be effective with their paper terrorism tactics.
So we started training the registrar of deeds, the clerks of court, our district court and Superior Court judges, our assistant district attorneys. We even trained defense attorneys so they would understand, you know, this is not just a crazy person who they are representing, [that] this is actually somebody who believes that the government is illegitimate and this is why they believe that.
We are to the point now where if sovereigns decide they want to file a fraudulent lien against an officer or anybody in law enforcement or the criminal justice system or city government, or file a lawsuit, that information is brought to us immediately. In Guilford County, if a sovereign comes in the registrar of deeds’ office to file any type of sovereign paperwork, whether it’s a lien, lawsuit or an affidavit renouncing their citizenship, we will get that information typically within 20 or 25 minutes of that sovereign leaving the office. And that allows us to be preemptive with the liens and the lawsuits that they are trying to file against judicial officials, our patrol guys, or anybody in the criminal justice system, because then we can take that information to the district attorney’s office [where it’s decided] whether to prosecute, and we can bring it to the city attorneys and make sure they can [seek] summary judgments dismissing those lawsuits. So it’s made the process quicker and it’s allowed us to be proactive instead of being reactive to it.
What do you do when you realize that someone who filed a lien is a sovereign?
FINCH: We go ahead and send them a letter from the Intelligence Squad saying that it’s come to our attention that you recently attempted to file “sovereign” paperwork, and [this is] basically just to advise you that none of that is legitimate.
Do they respond?
FINCH: [Sometimes] we get phone calls from some of these folks that literally were duped. We have actually unconverted a couple of up-and-coming sovereigns, “amateur” sovereigns, I guess you can call them.
Our police attorney is a very proactive guy. He also sends a letter on behalf of the city legal department saying, “Just so you know, if you do ever anticipate filing a lawsuit or false lien on any of our officers, we advise you already we will countersue.” That’s been the position of our police attorney since he came in six months ago or so. It’s been very, very persuasive.
FLOWERS: We insulated our county, I think, as best you can. We train everybody from parking enforcement to meter-reading folk who will see the tags and contact us immediately. We [also] trained our dispatchers to pick up some of these buzzwords so they can then notify the officer to be aware on calls for service or traffic stops, and we’ve trained all levels of our command staff. It’s been a pretty big net we have thrown out, which has been very effective.
How do you collect information about sovereigns?
FLOWERS: We go out after our patrol guys run into [them, or] after we get an E-mail from a parking guy or the registrar of deeds, and we talk to these folks in a very congenial, nonaggressive manner — basically, telling them that we want to understand their political and ideological stance in order to train up our folks. We spend hours sitting down at sovereign kitchen tables and on their couches, in their backyards sipping lemonade. And they’ll just talk to us. A lot of them haven’t had anybody that would spend the time to listen to them. They will tell us everything we need to know in order to predict their behavior the next time they’re run into by officers.
We have infiltrated some of their meetings in an undercover capacity also. But a lot of our best intelligence is just very overt intelligence gathering, just questions and answers.
Can you talk a little more about the nature of the movement in your area?
FINCH: The Washitaw Nation and the Moorish Nation [both predominantly black groups], those are our most prominent and dominant sovereign groups in North Carolina as a whole.
You hear [references to] Timothy Drew [who is also known as Noble Drew Ali]. He started the Moorish Science Temple in New Jersey, but he’s originally from North Carolina. As with any movement, folks always want to flock to the homeland.
How are people getting into the movement to begin with?
FINCH: Kory and I believe that a lot of these black sovereigns are getting indoctrinated in the prison system in New Jersey, and elsewhere, on a very basic level. Because there is such a large contingency of black sovereigns in this area, they can come down here and already have that sovereign support system in place. So there’s a huge influx of New Jersey folks coming to North Carolina — that’s why the movement is growing daily.
FLOWERS: When we identify a new Moorish apartment building a lot of times, we go do surveillance there and we notice there’s an overwhelming number of New Jersey tags. And some of our partners from New Jersey say that they’ve noticed a lot of North Carolina tags amongst the New Jersey Moors. So it’s not coincidental.
Do you have any sense of how many sovereigns are in your area?
FINCH: In just this center part of North Carolina, I would be comfortable with a conservative number of around 300. And I think there’s more. I think that for every one that Kory and I go out and interview and identify, there are probably three or four more that just got indoctrinated and haven’t yet had a law enforcement encounter.
And they’re all active — filing liens, confronting officers and so forth?
FLOWERS: They’re on a continuum. Sixty to 70% of them are not going to be combative. They’re not going to sue officers, they are just going to give us lip service and give the standard paperwork. And then you’ve got the others, 25-30% that are going to actively resist arrest, fight officers, sue officers.
We try to identify the threat level of each one. We try not to just make a blanket statement, “Sovereign equals danger,” [as in] physically dangerous, because a lot of them are not. We hope to dissuade a lot of them before they kind of get to that point.
Has there been any violence?
FINCH: What we have been dealing with is your roadside traffic stop where [individuals] are resisting, they are actively fighting, they are trying to hurt the cop on the side of the road. But we haven’t had any large organized group of sovereigns try to harm anybody.
FLOWERS: We had a couple sovereigns that climbed up on furniture in court and yelled at judges, thrown paperwork toward the judge, to the point where they would have to get tased multiple times, double-restrained and dragged out of court. They just don’t play by the same rules as even our most hardcore, run-of-the-mill criminals. Run-of-the-mill criminals, even if they are real badasses, they don’t yell at the judges, and throw stuff at judges. These guys are just a different breed. Their mindset is totally different.
FINCH: We have had a couple of our white sovereigns and a couple of our black sovereigns threaten district court and Superior Court judges verbally and with letters. Not actually saying, “I’m going to kill you,” but “I don’t respect your authority. You have no authority as a judicial official and harm is going to come to you.” And we have had a couple situations of harassment where they have constantly sent E-mails and letters to a couple of judges’ houses. We have had to go out and investigate and do threat assessments on those folks.
How much of a threat is this to law enforcement and other officials in your area?
FINCH: I don’t think it’s the No. 1 violent threat, but it’s definitely the most intrusive threat to law enforcement, because of paper terrorism and the associated paperwork.
FLOWERS: It’s much more intimidating and corrosive than threats of physical violence. You know, our guys, they aren’t afraid of bullets and knives — but the idea of losing their house, losing their livelihood; it’s propagated because it’s worked. We get calls from officers who are discouraged from stopping sovereigns, because they know of their reputation.
Do you think the movement will fade away eventually?
FLOWERS: We don’t believe that we will ever get rid of it, but we can definitely [affect] it. Word is getting out among the sovereign circles in the Southeast that this is not the place to be. It’s our hope to just move them. And if everybody else would just work to insulate their counties and states, then they will eventually run out of places to be.
We probably trained 5,000 cops or so in the last couple of years. We get calls pretty regularly after a training session [from officers who run into sovereigns], who tell us they handled the encounter safely because of the training. That’s the payoff for us — a big-time payoff.
Does North Carolina have a paper terrorism law?
FLOWERS: It’s a misdemeanor right now to file a false lien, or a lien that has no merit whatsoever. It’s a step above a heavy speeding ticket.
Rob had a meeting in March with the attorney general of North Carolina, just to sit down and talk about this, about what we can do to create more proactive laws to squash a lot of this stuff. [And] we ran a training session for the North Carolina governor’s crime commission in November. They are intrigued and wanting to do something about it. Hopefully, North Carolina will be enacting some cutting edge legislation in the months to come.
Do you have a sense of how many fraudulent liens and other documents have been filed in your area?
FLOWERS: In every training we hold, classes of 40 to 50 guys, there will be eight or nine who are either currently being sued, have been sued or had had a lien put on their property. It’s really thick.
FINCH: In North Carolina, the laws are so lax and there are so many loopholes that they could effectively threaten law enforcement and scare law enforcement away by filing these frivolous liens and lawsuits. And it’s worked to a certain extent, you know, every 100 traffic stops on sovereign citizens, 10 or 15 are going to result in liens and lawsuits. Eventually, word gets around.
What steps should be taken to reverse this trend?
FINCH: The most effective thing to do is train and educate. Don’t just keep the training in-house. Don’t just train law enforcement. You have to train everybody from the courthouse personnel, all the way down to your parking enforcement folks.
FLOWERS: We even trained a bunch of fire inspectors, fire department building inspectors, because these guys are going into houses and running into sovereigns.
FINCH: If our guys feel comfortable and prepared when dealing with these guys then we have done our job, because then they will do their job safely and effectively.