‘Sovereign citizens’ plaster courts with bogus legal filings–and some turn to violence
By Lorelei Lairdimage
(Using “Press This” this article is posted for public information and educational purposes, with slight editing to change the size making it more appropriate for a blog post.) The original can be read at the above link.)
The Atta family locked up their Temecula, Calif., home and went on vacation in 2012. While they were gone, Victor Cheng moved in.Cheng had owned the home before the Attas, but he lost it in foreclosure. Nonetheless, he filed a fraudulent deed with the county recorder’s office, transferred the utilities into his name and even tried to evict the Attas after their return. During his prosecution for burglary, trespassing and filing a false document, he insisted that he was not the person being prosecuted because the indictment spelled his name in all capital letters.
Cherron Phillips of Chicago was upset that she was barred from the courtroom during her brother’s trial on drug charges. So she filed false $100 billion liens against the property of 12 people involved in the case—including the U.S. attorney and chief judge then serving in the Northern District of Illinois. When she was prosecuted, she insisted on representing herself, called herself River Tali El Bey, then filed numerous documents that the judge called “clotted nonsense.
In New Jersey, Ronald Ottaviano’s company offered a debt elimination plan that purported to draw money from a secret bank account maintained by the U.S. Treasury in each citizen’s name. Potential customers were told that these fabricated accounts were set up to allow the government to borrow against each citizen’s earnings, and that individuals who file the right papers can gain access to the accounts. After his own employees turned him in, Ottaviano defended himself against charges of fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. He told the court that he didn’t believe he was subject to U.S. taxes.
What all of these cases have in common is that they are part of a movement of “sovereign citizens,” according to law enforcement officials. Sovereigns—also called “freemen on the land” or “organic citizens”—believe that an illegitimate, usurper federal government has taken over, and that they don’t have to pay taxes, pull over their cars for police or obey any other law they don’t like. These beliefs may sound silly, but sovereigns can be difficult to laugh off. For one thing, even though they don’t believe they’re subject to laws, they use laws as weapons.
The trouble doesn’t stop there. When involved in any legal matter, from pet licensing to serious criminal charges, sovereigns are known for filing legal-sounding gibberish, usually pro se, learned from other sovereigns who sell lessons in “law” online. They’re also known for the sheer volume of their filings, which can double the size of a normal docket. This can frustrate and delay courts as they consider the defendant’s competence and otherwise try to minimize disruptions. With many court systems fighting heavy caseloads and budget cuts, these extra headaches are unwelcome.
Sovereign citizens are not considered to be an organized group. According to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, they’re difficult to count because they lack a leader or a unified ideology. The SPLC roughly estimated that there were 300,000 sovereigns in the U.S. in 2011, with about a third, or 100,000, as hard-core believers, Potok says. He suspects the percentage of hard-core believers has since increased.
“There’s still a fair amount of anecdotal evidence suggesting it is spreading,” Potok says. “It is the single most widespread idea from the radical right.”
Part of the reason the ideology has spread is the availability of the Internet, MacNab says. Once involved, the SPLC says, new sovereigns are part of a large subculture with an active online community. They frequently learn more sovereign ideas—and the sham legalese they use in court—from websites or hotel seminars selling how-to kits for profit. These are also popular ways for sovereigns to sell bogus methods for fighting taxes, debt or foreclosures. The people peddling these ideas are sometimes prosecuted for fraud or tax evasion.
Nevertheless, sovereign ideas can create real problems for the legal system. For one thing, even when sovereigns are genuinely trying to participate in a case, they’re often disruptive. Because they believe their own legal system is the only legitimate one—and because they frequently resent authorities they feel are not legitimate—they have trouble cooperating with even the most basic of requirements.
D. Loren Washburn, a former tax prosecutor in Utah, recalls a woman who was subpoenaed to testify in an investigation of her father for tax evasion. (Sovereigns have a lot of overlap with tax defiers, so tax prosecutors are familiar with the ideology.) She declined to answer questions, he says.
“We said, ‘Are you in any way related to him?’ ” recalls Washburn, now a shareholder at Clyde Snow & Sessions in Salt Lake City and a member of the ABA Section of Taxation’s Civil and Criminal Tax Penalties Subcommittee. “She said, ‘They say he’s my father, but there’s never been a paternity test.’ “
The woman was prosecuted for obstruction of justice, but when she got to court, she refused to admit she was the person named in the indictment. The judge jailed her for contempt of court, believing, Washburn says, that an afternoon in jail would convince her to comply. Instead, it took about three months.
“The judge was eager to let her out, but at the same time wasn’t eager to encourage or indulge in any way this crazy fiction of ‘I’m not that person because you spelled my name with [capital] letters,’ ” says Washburn. “And as a result, she stayed in jail for months and months, and she was the mother of five kids. … The calls from her father said, ‘Don’t let them bully you; you’d rather die in jail a martyr to the United States of America than give in to this tyranny.’ Then you’d hear a phone call from her husband saying, ‘Your father’s an idiot.’ “
He adds, “On a personal level, you see a lot of tragedy in it.”
PRO SE PERSISTENCE
Another form of disruption is the tendency among sovereigns to represent themselves, even when a public defender is available. Though the movement is full of legal gurus selling false ideas about the law for profit, there are few or no licensed attorneys in it. And because sovereigns believe that the government and its laws are illegitimate, they don’t value the help of an attorney.
But without a defense attorney as gatekeeper, no one stops sovereigns from proceeding under their version of the law. A defense attorney for the woman in Washburn’s anecdote had also defended Brian David Mitchell, the man who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart from her family’s Salt Lake City home in 2002. Mitchell, charged with the kidnapping after Smart was found nine months later, was diagnosed with mental illness. Washburn says the attorney found the challenges of representing the two defendants very similar.
“The reality is: You have to have a lot of patience and work to create a practical sense in them of what the outcome is,” he says.
To make matters worse, these defendants aren’t generally interested in a plea bargain, says former tax prosecutor Bill Lovett, now managing partner at Collora in Boston.
“They’re waiting for their day in court so they can get up in front of a judge and a jury and make these arguments,” says Lovett, part of the Civil and Criminal Tax Penalties Subcommittee of the Taxation Section. “It takes up a higher percentage of the time to get the case done.”
And then there’s the volume of their filings.
“I’ve seen sovereign citizens have to buy a new printer because there’s so much paperwork,” says Joseph Rillotta, a former tax prosecutor now with Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C., and another member of the Taxation Section.
“These are people who are very fond of paperwork,” says Michelle Nijm, assistant general counsel in the office of the Illinois secretary of state. “Even in court these cases drag on. They file nonmeritorious motions,” which can be fought, “but it takes time and it’s expensive.”
Nijm cites a group of attorneys who were targeted by a frivolous UCC filing. After the filer included their Social Security numbers in a public filing, the attorneys had to ask the court to expunge that record. The attorney fees were $20,000.
MacNab says the volume of filings is a “huge problem”—not only because it clogs the courts, but also because fatigued officials sometimes drop the matter. And any small victory is taken as evidence that sovereigns’ extreme legal systems work.
She says the Florida dog license incident involving Donna Lee Wray stands out in her mind. “She refused to pay. They tried to fine her $25, and she hammered the court with paperwork, … something like 65 filings.”
“The county government just gave up, which is unfortunate because then she turned around and packaged her materials as ‘This is how you get out of taxes.’ “
FILLING FALSE LIENS
According to the NASS report, at least 17 states permit offices either to refuse to accept bogus filings or expunge them from the record after filing. At least seven states have a system for expedited judicial relief; at least 14 allow penalties in a civil lawsuit; and at least 10 make filing a false lien a crime. Many of these laws were passed within the last seven years. On the federal level, the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007 made it illegal to file a false lien as retaliation against a federal employee.
North Carolina was one of the first states to address bogus filings, but Secretary of State Elaine Marshall says she would like to see more state laws designed to keep the burden of removing false liens off the victim. She also urges state officials to learn the signs that a filing is coming from a sovereign.
Detective Rob Finch of the Greensboro, N.C., police department agrees. He and fellow detective Kory Flowers were among the first law enforcement officers to research sovereign citizens, and they often write and lecture on how law enforcement can handle sovereigns safely.
“Awareness is quite frankly the best tool,” he says. “If you deal with a sovereign in your courtroom, be aware… [that you] need to run all [your] property and make sure there’s no festering lien that’s been sitting there for six months or a year.”
J.J. MacNab is a Bethesda, Md., insurance analyst and litigation consultant who has tracked the sovereign movement for years. Meritless lawsuits are another way sovereigns may retaliate. The suits are sometimes not even structured properly, MacNab says.
“Often they don’t name a defendant,” she says. “They try to frame it as a criminal lawsuit. [The cases] float around the federal court system.”
A less common but very important concern is violence from sovereigns, particularly targeting law enforcement. A 2012 Anti-Defamation League report, The Lawless Ones, counts seven armed confrontations between sovereigns and law enforcement since 2010. It also notes threats or violence against judges, elected officials and even sovereigns’ own families.
MacNab says she believes violence may become more common as sovereigns realize they aren’t getting what they want.
“Most of the retaliation is in the form of liens—sometimes in the form of threats, and in very rare cases they act on the threats,” she says. “I think they’re moving in that direction, unfortunately. And if enough people threaten, some people will start acting on it.”
“They end up being criminally prosecuted not so much because the [dollar] amount at issue is high, as because they antagonize the system repeatedly and thoroughly and almost refuse to be ignored,” he says.