A self-described “sovereign citizen” – part of what the FBI recently described as a growing and dangerous antigovernment movement – goes on trial this week near Fort Worth, Texas, on charges of aggravated assault on a public servant.
James Michael Tesi is accused of shooting at police officer John Fossett in the Fort Worth suburb of Hurst last July 21 when the officer attempted to arrest Tesi on a warrant. As frequently occurs with sovereign citizens, people who believe federal and state laws don’t apply to them, the potentially deadly shooting involving the police officer started as a relatively minor traffic infraction.
The danger of contact between police and sovereign citizens was underscored in an important report released just four months ago by FBI analysts who say sovereigns pose the greatest domestic terrorism threat. That report followed by more than a year the notorious May 20, 2010, murders of two West Memphis, Ark., police officers by a father-son team of sovereigns; both were later killed by police.
“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,” the FBI report said.
“As sovereign citizens’ numbers grow, so do the chances of contact with law enforcement and, thus, the risks that incidents will end in violence,” the FBI report said, adding: “Law enforcement and judicial officials must understand the sovereign-citizen movement, be able to identify indicators, and know how to protect themselves from the group’s threatening tactics.”
Tesi, a 49-year-old occupational therapist, was stopped in February 2010 by police in Arlington, between Fort Worth and Dallas, for not wearing a seat belt. When he failed to pay a $244 fine, a warrant was issued for his arrest, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
Then, on Dec. 20, 2010, when Tesi was stopped in Colleyville near Fort Worth for allegedly speeding, he failed to produce a driver’s license and was arrested on the Arlington warrant. He was released from jail, but failed to show up in Colleyville Municipal Court, leading to yet another warrant for his arrest.
When Officer Fossett saw Tesi driving, knowing there was a warrant for his arrest, he followed the wanted man to his home. Tesi parked his vehicle in his garage and then came out, firing a weapon, police reported. The uniformed police officer returned fire, wounding Tesi in the face and leg. The officer wasn’t struck in the exchange of gunfire, and Tesi recovered.
Initially, Tesi was charged in a grand jury indictment with attempted capital murder. But last week the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office decided to modify the charge to aggravated assault on a public servant, the Fort Worth newspaper reported.
If convicted of the felony, Tesi faces a possible sentence of up to life in prison and a $10,000 fine.
As the traffic citation case unfolded, Tesi again took direction from the sovereign citizen playbook and attempted to move the case into U.S. District Court. He acted as his own attorney and filed assorted legal motions, some of them bordering on the nonsensical, that cited admiralty law and the Uniform Commercial Code. (Such citations are typical of sovereign citizens.) In various court filings, Tesi identified himself as “James Michael; house of Tesi” and “James Michael Joseph; house of Tesi El,” the Fort Worth newspaper reported.
At one point, Tesi even attempted to fire U.S. District Judge Terry Means. “This court and all officers of this court have no right to presume anything about Me, the Demandant, except that I am a sovereign living soul, unimpaired by any contracts,” Tesi wrote in one of his legal briefs.
Not persuaded, the federal judge not long thereafter dismissed Tesi’s do-it-yourself lawsuit.