'Sovereign' Tries Out Fantasy Arguments in Murder Defense

"Sovereign citizens," those delusional antigovernment extremists who seem to believe that the right incantation can magically erase their debts or resolve their tax troubles, keep on fighting the law. They're tying up courts with meaningless pseudo-legal arguments, filing bogus liens that ruin their enemies' credit ratings, confounding police officers with fake license plates and other documents, squatting in foreclosed properties, and occasionally committing acts of violence when backed into a corner by reality.

Time and time again, the law wins – and sovereigns pay the price of their tax evasion, mail fraud or general cussedness.

But it's one thing to risk angering a judge or having to pay a court fine. It's quite another to base a murder defense on sovereign beliefs. That's what Angel Ruelas is doing.

"I'm not here to go to trial," Rueles told state Judge Mark Hood in Monterey County, Calif., again and again at a May 5 hearing. "I'm just here to accept the indictment upon proof that a contract exists. … If you're not going to allow me to do that, what remedy do I have in this matter?"

Sovereign citizens like Ruelas believe that, unless they explicitly agree to be governed by the laws of the U.S. and subject to the jurisdiction of its courts, they are exempt from any punishment that might proceed from breaking those laws. The movement is rooted in racism and anti-Semitism, though most sovereigns are unaware of their beliefs' origins.

Rueles and his brother, Jacobo, stand accused of the brutal 1997 murder of a high school student in Monterey. Jacobo, who was 18 at the time of the slaying, faces the death penalty if found guilty. Angel, who was 17, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Now 32, Jacobo has already been granted the right to defend himself. But 31-year-old Angel's request to do the same came in such peculiar terms that Judge Hood not only denied it but ordered a complete psychiatric evaluation to be sure that Angel was fit to stand trial, the Monterey Herald reports.

Judge Hood last week accepted the court-appointed psychiatrist's conclusion that Angel Ruelas is fit to stand trial. It is not yet known if he will apply to represent himself or attempt to use sovereign tactics going forward.

While unusual, Ruelas is not the first defendant to try using sovereign techniques to ward off serious criminal charges. A 2008 Washington Monthly article describes how, between 2005 and 2007, four Baltimore rap promoters facing the death penalty on federal charges of murder, racketeering, drug dealing and weapons possession successfully used the tactics to slow the proceedings against them to a snail's pace. The four spent months repeating legally meaningless speeches that enraged and frustrated the judge, who described their arguments as "unfathomable" and "bizarre," and urged them to take a more conventional approach to defending themselves.

"You are committing suicide in broad daylight," the judge said to one of the defendants in 2006. "There are public suicides in this country far too often. People jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge. People walk into their workplaces with a gun and put the gun up to their head and pull the trigger. People slash their wrists. I don't want you to join that community, but that's what you're doing, sir."

Not exactly. Rather than risk losing key witnesses by allowing the case to drag on longer, prosecutors took the death penalty off the table. The men were sentenced in 2009. Three were given life sentences; one was sentenced to 33 years plus five years of supervised release.

Also in 2008, an Alabama man facing a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole attempted to use sovereign tactics to shield himself from prosecution on drug charges. Frustrated by his client's refusal to recognize the court's jurisdiction, the man's lawyer petitioned to withdraw from the case, but the judge refused his request. After several months, the matter came to an abrupt end when the man pleaded guilty against the advice of his attorney. In 2009, he was sentenced to 20 years and 10 months in prison.