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Sovereign Citizens Movement in the United States


The sovereign citizen movement is a group of Americans who have denounced any allegiance with the government of the US and refused to respect or adhere to the constitution. The genesis of the sovereign citizen movement may be traced back to around 1970s, although the movement became vibrant and conspicuous in the 1980s. Its ideology is massively centered on conspiracy theories and its members believe that the existing U.S. Government is Illegitimate and so, the movement does not pay attention to its laws or constitution. Its vibrancy in contemporary US became evident in 2009 when it transformed from just a movement to a criminal group, causing domestic terror and other criminal activities. In fact, it is one of the most feared domestic terror movements in the United States.

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The emergence of Sovereign Citizens

The movement was not quite active initially, but since the year 2000, sovereign citizens have engaged the police in violent battles, culminating into several police officers’ deaths. Law enforcement agents have even classified them as a major threat, equating them to other dangerous groups, such as the Islamic extremists who proclaim antigovernment sentiments. There has been a growing concern among the authority regarding the followers who were believed to have rights to use arms to resist arrest and engage the police in violent fights. In 2010, there was a shootout in West Memphis where a police sergeant by the name Brandon Paudert was killed. It emerged that the perpetrator was a sovereign citizen follower who got involved in altercation with the police officer during a normal traffic stop check (Domestic terrorism 2012).

The ‘Domestic terrorism’ article further elaborates that the followers of the sovereign citizens have a misguided belief that they are not under any jurisdiction of local, state, or even federal government as a whole; they believe that the country is governed by martial law and thus, they neither respect nor pay allegiance to the U.S. constitution (Domestic terrorism 2012).

How Sovereign Citizens threaten federal authority in the United States

Sovereign citizens harass and use intimidation to threaten law enforcement agents, court officials, government operatives and financial institutions. They do this to stop or discourage them from interfering with their fraudulent activities. According to Weil (2012, 9), they believe that state officials and law enforcement agencies, such as the police, have no legal authority to enforce legal action against them. Through a common law, they may convince a jury to issue their own perceived legal rights, which are null and void in the US constitution. They claim for monetary compensation as a result of illegal arrest through circumvention of their common law that allows that. To make the threats binding, they issue arrest warrants, or even bounties against the people they claim to interfere with their activities (Sovereign Citizens 2012).

An incident to explain this occurred in 1992 in Florida where several people had formed a group referred to as “the constitutional court of We the people in and for the United States of America. A group that was affiliated to the sovereign citizen” (Sovereign Citizens 2012). Here, following the intervention of state organs and the FBI, they were arrested, charged and convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and threatening of state officials.

Conspiracy ideology takes the position of America having two separate governments, the legitimate and the illegitimate one. The ideology explains that several years ago, an insidious conspiracy infiltrated the U.S. government and changed it such that legitimate part of the original government was replaced with an illegitimate one, which is the present government (Johnson 2012, 201).

This ideology has made sovereign citizens followers claim allegiance to the old original government that existed before. They believe that the previous government had been corrupted by the conspiracy, thus, they do not respect or heed to its constitution; they regard themselves as “freemen”. They struggle to separate themselves from the illegitimate government even going as far as renouncing their citizenship, and even amending their names. According to The Lawless Ones article, an act of extremity in relation to this ideology happened in 2010, in Newport, Virginia, where a sovereign citizen adherent was arrested and brought to court with four charges including driving without a license and driving with expired vehicle number plates. When he was told to plead to the charges, Mr. Amun told the judge that the US government had no authority over his rights, and his sovereignty status made him immune to all state laws within the constitution (The Lawless Ones 2012).

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The use of fictitious documents and identification has increased in the country recently. This has allegedly been fueled by the sovereign citizens’ notions on having immunity over the constitution, “diplomatic immunity”. They regard themselves as diplomats and their homes as embassies of sort (The Lawless Ones 2012).

They procure their own identification cards, vehicle number plates (Hess, Orthmann and Cho 2013, 326), some of which bearing a diplomatic agent status, to provide privileges to them in day to day circumstances. An example of this was in Indiana Polis, Indiana, November 2011, when a sovereign citizen Mr. Mark Osborn, was pulled over by a traffic police officer for traffic offences. He argued that he did not have to register his motorcycle neither have a valid driving license. Mr. Osborn was found with an identification card that regarded him with diplomatic status, and the plate on his motorcycle contained unauthorized identification namely, ‘Free State Republic’. After his arrest and trial, he told the judge that being sovereign entitled him a status of immunity against all laws of the US constitution; surprisingly, he even demanded compensation for wrongful arrest (The Lawless Ones 2012, 20).

Sovereign citizens’ use of weapons, force, and violence in advancing their sovereignty ideology violates the federal law. The sovereign extremists have in the past bought weapons, explosives, engaged in shooting with the law enforcement agents. This violence potential has not only been isolated to the police alone but there has been a report of it encroaching to the main public officials as well. An incident that relates to this occurred in Fairbanks, Alaska, June 2012 where Alaska militia leader Schaeffer Cox “was convicted for conspiracy to murder, solicitation, and seven weapon charges” (Hesterman 2013, 105). The two sovereign citizens Mr. Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon were found guilty of illegal possession of weapon with intention of killing a federal and state official (Hesterman 2013, 105).

Fictitious law enforcement entities used by the sovereign citizen have in the recent times been established; they have fraudulently acquired law enforcement agencies entitlements. Some sovereign citizens make their own identification cards bearing their purported positions or titles, which give them privileges such as an easy pass at a police checks, courthouse security checks, and financial institutions. They go ahead to even procure their own law enforcement badges, which they use it to intimidate or make false interrogation of the public.

Fraud is another criminal activity that sovereign citizens engage in, especially through Redemption schemes, which they use to con financial institutions and lenders with impunity (Russell and Cohn, 2012).

The most commonly used financial scheme has been the Redemption scheme, which has been commonly used by them after declaring themselves free from the US state laws. Through the redemption scheme, they have been trying to convince their victims that the former currency system was more effective and reliable than the current one dominated by use of paper money. They perceive the current US Monetary financial system to be a form of credit slavery and unconstitutional. Gold and silver are the only purportedly lawful forms of currency. With this ideology they have got involved in creation of their own forms of “paper money, certified money orders, comptroller’s warrants, bills of exchange, and sight drafts”, with their claim of them being at least as legitimate in line with the Federal Reserve Notes (The Lawless Ones 2012, 22).

In relation to the above, The Lawless Ones (2012, 22) article further gives an incident that happened in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2012 where a sovereign adherent Mr. Danny Ray Hardin was sentenced to a 10 year imprisonment in a Kansas City federal prison after being found guilty of 21 counts of mail fraud and in connection with the creation of fictitious financial instruments where he is alleged to have sold $100 million fake promissory notes (22). He did this with his non-existing bank namely the Private Bank of Danny Ray Hardin; and the promissory notes were used by the victims to pay off mortgages (The Lawless Ones 2012, 22).

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Paper terrorism has reportedly been used by the sovereign citizens to intimidate, harass, threaten, or retaliate against public officials, law enforcement officers, or private citizens. It involves the use of bogus lien also referred to as legal documents and filings or through the misuse of legitimate documents. Paper terrorism acts are carried out through frivolous lawsuits, filing of fraudulent Internal Revenue Service forms to blackmail a victim with claims of him or her having large amount of money, which they have not accounted for, in most cases, law enforcement officers or public officials (The Lawless Ones 2012, 16).

This has the effect on the victims, as they have to spend heavily in order to protect and retain their ownership of property, otherwise it would be gone with the sovereign citizens. Despite the US government outlawing this, it still remains a very effective tactic employed by the sovereign citizens (Johnson 2012, 201). One case in point is that of a sovereign citizen member Mr. Ronald James Davenport of Chewelah, Washington, who was imprisoned for three years by a Washington federal court after he was found guilty of four counts of filling more than $20 billion in bogus liens against government officials after his victims became liable for unpaid taxes (The Lawless Ones 2012, 16).

Sovereign citizens also use exploitation of the mortgage foreclosure crisis through the self-appointed tacticians known as Gurus. The Gurus are sort of legal or constitutional experts who offer their services as legal consultants. They arrange seminars while simultaneously engaging in scams and fraudulent activities. A fee is charged to attend such seminars, which provide information regarding methods to avoid paying taxes. DVDs and CDs, which contain the message from the seminar, are also sold. The most prevalent guru activity is the seminars, which are normally held in hotels. The meetings are sometimes attended by a number of people. The “sovereign citizens” gurus have actively been exploiting the foreclosure crisis, crisscrossing the country and promoting schemes and scams to desperate homeowners who were afraid of losing their houses (The Lawless Ones 2012, II).

They falsely claimed that such schemes could save their homes. In those seminars, they sold fraudulent documents such as driving licenses, passports, diplomat’s identification cards, vehicle number plates, fire arms permits and many more (Hess, Orthmann and Cho 2013, 326). Homes that have been left empty by their owners as a result of the foreclosure have been seized by members of the sovereignty citizens, who claim that the houses their own even if they did not own them in the first place.

There have been a growing number of new anti government groups recently. One of them is The Moorish Movement, which consists of African-American descent associated with the sovereign citizen movement. The “Moorish” movement has been gaining strength teaching sovereign citizen ideas and tactics to a new pool of potential recruits (Goroff 2014).

Radicalization of prison according to Bjelopera (2013, 1), has been one of the threats to imprisoned members of the sovereign citizens. It is a conducive environment where some of the prisoners get recruited or influence by radical ideologies that end up promoting domestic terrorism. There have been reports of imprisoned sovereign citizens continuing to recruit and teach their extremist ideologies while in prison; there is also a growing number of prisoners in federal prisons who pay allegiance to the sovereign citizen group, something that is very alarming. Several measures have been put in place to control this trend, but with less or no success at all.

Those recruits have been found building sovereign-citizen tactics such as filing bogus liens. For instance, a convicted drug dealer who was incarcerated was found to have filed more than $12 billion in liens against federal judges and prosecutors in the city of Connecticut; he was a recruit who was taught by a sovereign member of the Montana Freemen (Sovereign Citizen).

Another incident connected to sovereign citizen extremist methods was the seizing of foreclosed homes through the use of fake documents. In June 2010, members of the Moorish Nation who were African Americans associated with the sovereign citizen movement made an attempt to possess two residences in Hampton, Vancouver. It was reported that the suspects had placed advertisements in the local newspaper claiming the ownership of those houses with their jurisdiction of The Moorish Science Temple of America. Surprisingly, one of them had been evicted from a residence in February for his inability to pay rent and during this incident, he locked himself up inside the residence, and claimed that he could not be evicted as he was not subject of state laws, as being a member of Moorish-American made him immune to them (Sovereign Citizens 2012).

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Why does the FBI classify this group as domestic terrorists?

Seidl (2012, 1), defines domestic terrorism as the act of an American citizen attacking a fellow American either physically or through the use of fundamental extremist ideologies. Since Al Qaeda attacks in September 11, 2001, popularly referred to as 9/11, the emphasis on counter terrorism in the US has been against Islamic Jihadists. However, for the past 10 years, domestic terrorists have so far killed a number of American citizens and caused damages to public and private properties across the country. Most of those crimes were prosecuted but others, through their alleged protection by the constitution, have gone scot-free. Several groups classified by FBI include the black separatists, white supremacist, sovereign citizen extremists, and animal rights terrorists. The basis for this were the sovereign citizens whose actions have become a serious threat just like the ones by the Jihadist (Bjelopera 2013, I).

According to The FBI, the sovereign citizens believe that they are not under leadership of any government, neither do they have to be answerable to anyone about their actions on the land. Their ideology just completely makes them reject the American constitutional authority (Galofaro 2012).

This has lead to several criminal acts such as refusal to pay taxes. They constitute fake courts, which they use to harass judges and the police officers who attempt to interfere with their activity. Several crimes committed by this group include murder and physical assault of the public, as well as threatening judges, police officers, and government officials. The sovereign citizens have been found to impersonate police officers and diplomats. Through redemption schemes, they have engaged in white-collar crimes such as mortgage fraud (Hess, Orthmann and Cho 2013, 326)

Criminal activity committed by sovereign citizens can be investigated by the FBI or law enforcement agencies (White 2013, 331). Despite their ideologies being protected by the constitution of the United States of America, only federal legislatives, which are effective enough, can be deployed to counter this threat. Law enforcement agencies should use coordinated tactics to prosecute the sovereign citizens. Those tactics include proclaiming it to be a criminal offence to fill bogus liens. The penalties for filling such bogus liens should be severe enough to discourage such acts, both by the common public and the adherents of the Sovereign republic. The Court Security Improvement Act of 2007 was meant to guard government officials from the actions of the movement, and under it, there was creation of a “new criminal offense for false liens against the real or personal property of officers or federal government employees, including judges and prosecutors” (Sovereign Citizens).


All in all, although the sovereign citizen movement is accused of endangering the lives of other citizens in America, it should be noted that it is some of its members who have the mentality of being above the law by denouncing allegiance to the constitution. However, the violent acts that generate against state officials and law agents leave the law institutions with an obligation of approaching this issue carefully and with caution. The law enforcement agencies should be informed and kept updated at all times on new tactics that sovereign citizens may employ. This can be used to warn and protect the public against scams and such violent behavior.


“FBI increasingly concerned with “sovereign citizen” movement”. Domestic terrorism. 2002. Web.

Bjelopera, Jerome. 2013. “The Domestic Terrorist Threat: Background and Issues for Congress Specialist in Organized Crime and Terrorism“. CRS Report for Congress.

FBI Increasing Its Monitoring of ‘Sovereign Citizens’ — But Why?

Galofaro, Claire. 2012. “Sovereign citizens’ group rejects most government authority”. The Times-Picayune. Web.

Goroff, Nick. 2014. Threat from Within: Right Wing Domestic Terror Group ‘Sovereign Citizens. Web.

Hess, Kären, Christine Orthmann and Henry Cho. 2013. Police Operations: Theory and Practice. OH: Cengage Learning. Web.

Hesterman, Jennifer. 2013. The Terrorist-Criminal Nexus: An Alliance of International Drug Cartels, Organized Crime, and Terror Groups. NY: CRC Press. Web.

Johnson, Daryl. 2012. Right-Wing Resurgence: How a Domestic Terrorist Threat Is Being Ignored. NY: Rowman & Littlefield. Web.

Russell, Jesse and Cohn Ronald. 2012. Sovereign Citizen Movement. NY: Book on Demand. Web.

Seidl, Jonathon. 2012. FBI Increasing Its Monitoring of ‘Sovereign. Web.

The Lawless Ones: The resurgence of the sovereign citizen movement. 2012. ADL Special Report.

Weil, Patrick. 2012. The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic. PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. Web.

White, Jonathan. 2013. Terrorism and Homeland Security. OH: Cengage Learning. Web.

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