As the nation reels in the wake of violence against police officers, police departments around the country are becoming more focused on a domestic threat that claims police lives with disturbing regularity: the sovereign citizen.
Believing that state and federal governments act illegally and have no right to tax or enforce laws against certain citizens of the United States, sovereign citizen groups are becoming more widely known thanks to the violence that has stemmed from their movements. These movements live on the fringes of both the right and left wings of the political spectrum and have convinced ordinary people that the laws of the land should no longer apply to them, that they can claim their independent sovereignty.
The movement found its beginnings in the 1970s with the Posse Comitatus movement, an anti-government, right wing group founded in Oregon that claimed white, non-Jewish Americans held citizenship that pre-dates the Constitution and were bound only by common law, making them exempt from having to obey laws every other American adheres to, such as paying taxes.
Since those early days, sovereign movements have proliferated and evolved courtesy of the internet. While Posse Comitatus was a white movement, there are now groups of black sovereigns, some of whom believe they predate Native Americans on the North American continent, while others have evolved into “black separatist” groups, which oppose any type of racial integration. They support the formation of separate institutions and, in some cases, even a separate nation for African Americans.
Regardless of which side of the race or political spectrum these individuals fall on, violence permeates along the fringes of these movements.
The targeting of police officers is just one example of how extremist segments of sovereign citizens take action against what they believe is a government drunk with power, but it is certainly the most frightening to the average American. The sovereign citizen, for police, is a problem that transcends race. This increasingly diverse population now poses the biggest threat to officer safety according to the FBI and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START).
A 2014 study from START surveyed 364 law enforcement officials from various agencies and found that the top perceived threat was the sovereign citizen. While Islamic terrorists were a significant threat to 67% of the respondents, 86% viewed sovereign citizens as an even bigger threat to officer’s lives. With all the media hype surrounding Islamic terror groups, sovereign citizens sometimes get lost in the haze until events such as the targeting of police officer’s in Dallas and Baton Rouge in July of 2016.
“Essentially, you have a belief system that circumvents society and the rule of law, but also endorses violence as a viable tactic to avenge grievances or to express yourself,” said Daryl Johnson, a former senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security and the owner of a private law enforcement consulting firm, in an interview with Vice News in 2014.
To be clear, not all sovereign citizens are violent. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), there are more than 300,000 sovereign citizens in the United States, though an accurate number is difficult to pin down because they dedicate a lot of time to avoiding paying taxes and leaving paper trails.
For many of them, white collar crime is as far as they venture across the lines of legality. Paper is actually their most effective weapon in fighting the government. A common tactic deployed by sovereigns who have encountered local government through a traffic ticket or minor infraction is to flood courthouses with paperwork by creating dozens of court filings “containing pages of pseudo-legal nonsense,” according the SPLC.
The filings created in this tactic tend to be inflated heavily so as to slow court proceedings and create more work for legal teams and judges involved. The intent, is to aid sovereigns in their mission to avoid paying any fees to government, ranging from thousands of dollars’ worth of income tax to, in the case of one Florida woman, a $20 pet licensing fee.
“You can’t really believe in what they peddle unless you’ve turned off a common sense switch. They think that if they sign documents in red crayons it takes them out of the jurisdiction of the court,” J.J. MacNab, a leading expert on sovereign citizens, told CBS News in 2012.
To sum it up, an article on the SPLC website puts it this way: “Since most sovereigns favor paper over guns, when sovereigns are angry with government officials, their revenge most often takes the form of paper terrorism. Sovereigns file retaliatory, bogus property liens that may not be discovered by the victim until they attempt to sell their property. Sovereigns also file fake tax forms that are designed to ruin an enemy’s credit rating and cause them to be audited by the IRS.”
It isn’t hard to see why officials think so much about these citizens in terms of physical danger. For members on the far fringes of the sovereign movement, extremism is not all that uncommon. Sovereigns of this nature often times fall under the label of domestic terrorists. The SPLC noted 52 killings by members of domestic extremist movements in 2015 alone.
Prior to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, domestic terror threats were at the top of national, state and local authority’s list of priorities following a decade that included the Oklahoma City bombing and the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games. After Sept. 11, however, the focus shifted toward jihadists as fears of more attacks from Islamic extremists permeated.
But the domestic terror problem never went away simply because the media began paying less attention to the threat here at home. After Sept. 11, the violence continued. Since, the SPLC notes, 48 people in the U.S. have been killed by members of far right wing groups compared to 45 at the hand of Islamic extremists. The difference is that a significant number of those killed by these far right wing groups have been agents of one law enforcement agency or another.
According to a 2015 article from the Kansas City Star, between 2009 and July of 2014 there were 46 incidents of police shootouts with domestic extremists, but these stories are not reported in the same way international terror threats are splashed across the headlines.
The Star article went on to quote Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League: “We are five years into the largest resurgence of right-wing extremism that we’ve had since the 1990s. When it comes to domestic extremism, what tends to happen is that a lot of it goes under the radar, so unless it happens in your backyard, the average American doesn’t quite realize how much of this is happening.”
Some government agencies and organizations have noticed law enforcement’s struggle, however. A 2012 study by Combating Terrorism Center at West Point found an increase in the number of attacks and violent plots over recent years that originated from “individuals and groups who self-identify with the far right of American politics.”
Association with right wing politics is a notable development, but does not indicate an increased level of sanity from the other side of the political spectrum. History has shown that plenty of dangers lurk from the far fringes of the left side of the aisle. In the 1970s, left wing believers in a socialist doctrine and revolution were considered the biggest threat while in the ’90s, eco-terrorism arose with groups like the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) as well as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).
The ideological foundation of many of those movements has since crumbled or been badly damaged due to the dismantling of their infrastructure. Today, right wing groups have proliferated on each side of the racial divide and pose a real danger to anyone they perceive as an authority figure, be it a beat cop, district attorney or a judge hearing a case they are involved in.
In the case of a town justice named Robert Vosper, Rosendale, N.Y., a sovereign citizen named Richard Ulloa caught his attention when he appeared in Vosper’s court for a misdemeanor traffic offense and refused to cooperate during the arraignment. Vosper set bail for the man as a result, causing a reaction from Ulloa that took him by surprise.
Ulloa and two other sovereigns filed liens against Vosper and other local officials exceeding $1.24 trillion according to CBS News. But it isn’t just the liens that have been keeping the judge up at night. After learning that the three men had contact with associates of Jerry Kane, a sovereign citizen guilty of killing two West Memphis, Arkansas police officers with the help of his son Joseph, Vosper began to worry about a physical threat as well.
“I worked 30 years in the penitentiary, I never felt I had to carry a weapon,” Vosper told CBS News in 2012. “I’ve been carrying a weapon and sleeping with a gun under my mattress for the last year and a half.”
Vosper’s fears that a sovereign would come after a judge were validated that same year when authorities uncovered plots in Texas and Alaska that targeted judges in cases that involved sovereigns.
Their attacks are targeted at anything that can be seen as an institution of the state, from courthouses to banks, water treatment facilities, electrical power grids, churches, festivals, schools, police officers, judges and even funerals. In recent years, violent sovereigns have targeted them all, accompanied by racist ranting and a rhetoric that is being learned and mimicked by those who are disenchanted by the current state of American politics and government. People like Gavin Long, the African-American shooter who killed three Baton Rouge police officers in July of 2016.
The rise of these ideas via internet is unstoppable, leaving law enforcement officials and domestic terror analysts with the difficult task of responding to these individuals and the threat they may pose. The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and local police agencies are instituting training regimen for officers and agents in the field specifically in response to the sovereign threat they face in an attempt to limit the number of officers lost in the line of duty, but as the number of sovereigns grows and pervades a younger demographic, the task doesn’t get any easier.
“This is the next generation,” said MacNab in an interview with the Kansas City Star following the Baton Rouge incident in 2016. “The youngest generation, the ones in their 20s and now the teens, skip the paperwork stuff generally and go straight to the killing.”