Sovereign citizens believe they can choose which laws to obey or ignore, and deny the legitimacy of the judges, juries, law enforcement and elected officials most U.S. citizens acknowledge. They’re known to form their own “common law” courts, with fake judges and even fake marshals.
While their illegal activities usually involve not paying taxes, using fake license plates or practicing “paper terrorism” – the act of filing false liens and other bogus court documents – when they resort to violence, it’s often against law enforcement officers who are simply doing their jobs.
The FBI describes “sovereign-citizen extremists as comprising a domestic terrorism movement,” and called them “a growing threat to law enforcement” in a 2011 bulletin. “As sovereign citizens’ numbers grow,” the report states, “so do the chances of contact with law enforcement and, thus, the risks that incidents will end in violence.” Between 2010 and 2017, at least 10 law enforcement officers were killed by sovereigns.
A 2014 threat assessment study by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism showed sovereign citizens as the most highly ranked perceived terrorist threat among law enforcement, higher than Islamist extremism and militia/patriot groups.
Vann was first contacted by police outside a grocery store in Maplewood, a suburb of St. Paul, after he refused the store’s request to move his RV, which had a taillight out, out of the parking lot. When police ran his plates, they discovered he didn’t have a driver’s license and had an outstanding warrant for failing to pay child support.
Vann didn’t respond when police knocked on the RV’s door, and he drove to a nearby parking lot at a mall afterward, ignoring the flashing lights behind him. According to the criminal complaint, “When told he was being stopped because his license was revoked and he had a taillight out, Vann said he didn’t need a driver’s license and is not required to follow the traffic laws as he is a free citizen.”
He refused to leave the RV when police commanded him to, and when officers told him they’d forcibly remove him, he responded, “that would be a huge mistake.” Asked why, he replied, “Because two people would die today – that’s fucking why,” before reaching between the RV’s two front seats and telling officers he had a “great big boom.”
The police backed off and called a SWAT team, while businesses in the area were evacuated. The SWAT team eventually lobbed containers of a chemical irritant through the front passenger window, and a bomb squad robot tore off the rear door of the RV and pumped more chemicals inside. After an unsuccessful attempt to hunker down and avoid the irritants, Vann surrendered to police more than four hours after the standoff began.
Inside the RV, police found the apparent explosive device, containing an “energetic powder,” which was “shaped like a pig” and had “Fuck the Police” written on it. Vann was charged with making terroristic threats and fleeing police, both felonies.
Maplewood public safety director Scott Nadeau told TwinCities.com he was familiar with sovereign citizens’ anti-government philosophy: “I would say my experience with the sovereign citizens is some are very well versed in that ideology, (but) there are others who just choose to not recognize the authority of the government. That overarching theme is denial of authority.”
It was a close call for police, but also a reminder that encounters between sovereign citizens and law enforcement officers have had a deadly history over the past decade.
In May 2010 in West Memphis, Arkansas, two officers were killed after they pulled over Jerry and Joseph Kane, a father-and-son pair of sovereigns. After the traffic stop, when 45-year-old Jerry exited a minivan and argued with the two policemen, 16-year-old Joseph emerged from the minivan and killed both of them with an AK-47. The Kanes fled and ended up in a shootout with police later that afternoon, where two more officers were wounded and both Kanes were killed.
In 2012 in Alamo, California, a traffic stop over an obstructed license plate led the driver, a sovereign citizen, to shoot a California Highway Patrol officer in the head.
Those are just three of the law enforcement officers killed by sovereigns in the last decade. In February 2018, a Moorish sovereign citizen – Moorish sovereigns are an African-American offshoot of the predominantly Caucasian sovereign citizen movement – shot three law enforcement officers in Locust Grove, Georgia, killing one of them, after the officers tried to serve an arrest warrant for failure to appear in court.
And as evidenced by the events in Maplewood last month, confrontations between sovereign citizens and law enforcement occur with some regularity.
In October of last year in Logan, Utah, an officer stopped a truck with homemade license plates. The driver, 63-year-old David D’Addabbo, was known as a local sovereign citizen and had previously threatened to get into a shootout with police. After pulling over, D’Addabbo told the officer he had a firearm and would rather die than go to jail, prompting a two-hour standoff.
D’Addabbo’s surrender came only after the Cache County sheriff arrived to negotiate with D’Addabbo, because sovereign citizens often view the county sheriff as the highest level of authority they recognize.
As the FBI bulletin regarding sovereigns concludes:
Although the sovereign-citizen movement does not always rise to violence, its members’ illegal activities and past violent – including fatal – incidents against law enforcement make it a group that should be approached with knowledge and caution. It is important that law enforcement be aware of sovereign citizens’ tactics so agencies can warn the public of potential scams, spot illegal activity and understand its potential severity, and be prepared for and protect against violent behavior or backlash through intimidation and harassment.
Mugshot from Ramsey County Sheriff's Office