A veteran homicide detective in Sarasota, Fla. – lured by the burgeoning appeal of “sovereign citizen” ideology – was fired last week after he had “seceded” from the jurisdiction of the federal government, an act he claims was intended to be a political protest more than any sort of act of extremism.
Now, we learn that husband-and-wife members of the Alabama State Defense Force (ASDF), a state-organized volunteer force that supports the National Guard, have resigned after superiors discovered they were deeply involved in the sovereign citizen movement. The couple had joined the Republic for the United States of America, a shadow government formed by evangelical preacher and tax scofflaw James Timothy Turner.
The state has a policy to remove anyone from the ASDF if they are members of a “subversive” organization, and Jeff May, a battalion commander, is drafting a letter to the Guard’s ranking authority to ensure sovereign citizens fall under that policy.
May said Michael Francis and Tami Lynn Matthews of Dothan, Ala., were already facing a discharge from duties for failing to meet requirements; they missed drills and wore their uniforms when they were not on duty.
Sovereign citizens are part of the broader antigovernment “Patriot” movement. They believe they are not subject to the laws and jurisdiction of the federal government. The SPLC estimates that as many as 300,000 people in the U.S. hold some sovereign citizen views.
In Sarasota, Detective Tom Laughlin filed documents last April to declare himself a “sovereign citizen.” Those documents included a thumbprint on each page (one of the many signature trademarks used by those in the movement) and a photocopy of 21 silver pieces – the price to become a “freeman.” “What that paperwork was done for, was basically to get back to the roots,” Laughlin told internal affairs investigators. “The Constitution, you know, and under God and back to the meat of what it really is.”
When Laughlin later learned he had joined an extremist organization, he said, “I filed those documents without reading them. … All I wanted to do was make a political statement about the way things are going in this country.”
Mistake or not, the cases in Alabama and Sarasota represent the subtle allure of the sovereign citizen movement and at least anecdotal evidence that the ideology is creeping forward.
While there have been only a few known instances of radicalized sworn officers, Fred Wilson, director of operations for the National Sheriffs’ Association, which monitors trends among sheriffs’ departments nationwide, said he fears a day when such radical ideas are so widespread they become institutional. With the count of Patriot groups now nearly as high as it was during the mid-1990s heyday of an earlier militia movement, that day may be closer than we think. “It’s the edge of a movement,” Wilson said.
The appearance of sovereign citizens in public positions comes as the Patriot movement experiences a dramatic expansion. The Southern Poverty Law Center this week released its annual list of hate and extremist groups, which counted 824 Patriot groups, including militias, “common-law” courts and other groups. The total is a 61% increase from 2009.
The popularity of Patriot ideas has been propelled, in part, by certain politicians who have co-opted those radical ideas in order to energize a base turned increasingly desperate by the tough economy and the election of the first black president.
For example, Russell Pearce, who became Arizona’s Senate president on the basis of his harshly nativist rhetoric, proposed a law this January that would allow his state to refuse to obey any federal law or regulation. In Virginia, Delegate Bob Marshall proposed a law to create an alternative currency “in the event of the destruction of the Federal Reserve System’s currency” – a popular expectation of antigovernment extremists. And in Montana, a state senator presented a statute called the “Sheriffs First Act” that would have required federal law enforcement authorities to ask for local sheriffs’ permission to act in their counties, or face arrest. The bill failed to garner wide support, but one lawmaker said the federal supremacy clause – a legal precept allowing the federal government to pass legislation that nullifies state laws – is itself unconstitutional. “When the federal government passes a statute that violates either the 9th or 10th Amendment, it is not supreme to anything,” said Chairman Terry Murphy, a Republican.