| I fought the law|
and the law won
“”This category of litigant shares one other critical characteristic: they will only honour state, regulatory, contract, family, fiduciary, equitable, and criminal obligations if they feel like it. And typically, they don’t.
|—Assoc. Chief Justice J.D. Rooke, Alberta, Canada, in the case Meads v. Meads|
Sovereign citizens would accurately be described as the flat earthers of the legal world. They typically believe that there are two types of citizens: natural citizens and Fourteenth Amendment citizens. African Americans who hold sovereign citizen-type beliefs sometimes refer to themselves as moors or muurs.
Based on idiosyncratic readings of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights they believe that natural citizens are citizens of the United States by virtue of having been born in one of the 50 states, not including the District of Columbia, and have ostensibly revoked their US federal citizenship and "contracts" (a term of art used exclusively by sovereign citizens in this context), and filed a "quiet title". Actions to quiet title always relate to disputes about the ownership of real property and certain titled chattels, so the notion of quieting title to a human being is unknown to the law (or, well, it has been in the US since 1865). Sovereign citizens believe that natural citizens are not subject to any United States federal law, including being subject to the jurisdiction of federal courts, but are subject to natural law and common law. By contrast, Fourteenth Amendment citizens are subject to federal and common law, but can become sovereign citizens by taking the same action as sovereign citizens.
In the United States, the sovereign citizen movement is closely related to the Posse Comitatus and freemen on the land movements, and there is substantial overlap between these movements and militia movements. In Canada, at least, there is an additional movement based around the concept of aboriginal heritage, which has been widely decried by Native Americans (First Nations people) and justices alike.
Many sovereign citizens believe that only white men have rights because only the Constitution and the Bill of Rights apply, not any subsequent amendments. Thus, they believe the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery) is unconstitutional and of no effect. They may also believe that the Nineteenth Amendment is unconstitutional, meaning women never gained suffrage and any election in which women vote is null and void.
Though a few stateless people exist in the world (most in permanent diplomatic limbo due to lack of any citizenship), and in the United States a few have somewhat arcane legal status allowing them to be citizens of their place of residence (currently recognized only in American Samoa and Swains Island) but not the U.S. at large, the idea that one can renounce one's citizenship in order to evade the laws of the land is unknown in all countries and U.S. courts have uniformly found this argument frivolous.
Renunciation of US Citizenship
Many "sovereign citizens" claim that they have renounced their US citizenship. However, this is incredibly unlikely because under the relevant section of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1481(a)), there are seven ways that one can officially renounce one's US citizenship as long as one were "voluntarily performing any of the following acts with the intention of relinquishing United States nationality". Per the law:
- obtaining naturalization in a foreign state upon his own application or upon an application filed by a duly authorized agent, after having attained the age of eighteen years; or
- taking an oath or making an affirmation or other formal declaration of allegiance to a foreign state or a political subdivision thereof, after having attained the age of eighteen years; or
- entering, or serving in, the armed forces of a foreign state if (A) such armed forces are engaged in hostilities against the United States, or (B) such persons serve as a commissioned or non-commissioned officer; or
- (A) accepting, serving in, or performing the duties of any office, post, or employment under the government of a foreign state or a political subdivision thereof, after attaining the age of eighteen years if he has or acquires the nationality of such foreign state; or (B) accepting, serving in, or performing the duties of any office, post, or employment under the government of a foreign state or a political subdivision thereof, after attaining the age of eighteen years for which office, post, or employment an oath, affirmation, or declaration of allegiance is required; or
- making a formal renunciation of nationality before a diplomatic or consular officer of the United States in a foreign state, in such form as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State; or
- making in the United States a formal written renunciation of nationality in such form as may be prescribed by, and before such officer as may be designated by, the Attorney General, whenever the United States shall be in a state of war and the Attorney General shall approve such renunciation as not contrary to the interests of national defense; or
- committing any act of treason against, or attempting by force to overthrow, or bearing arms against, the United States, violating or conspiring to violate any of the provisions of section 2383 of title 18, or willfully performing any act in violation of section 2385 of title 18, or violating section 2384 of title 18 by engaging in a conspiracy to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, if and when he is convicted thereof by a court martial or by a court of competent jurisdiction.
So, there is only one means by which these people could reasonably renounce their US citizenship without making a commitment to another country: applying at an embassy/diplomatic post. The Attorney General of the US has not created a process by which renunciations can be conducted on US soil. However, court precedent (Colon v. U.S. Department of State, 2 F.Supp.2d 43 (1998)) has affirmed that when you renounce your US citizenship, you don't get to keep your rights that you had when you were a US citizen. Namely, this means the right to enter the US, the right to live, work or study in the US without approval, vote in US elections or run for public office. Not to mention the fact that even if you renounce your citizenship, you can still be extradited to the United States if you committed a crime.
This claim is also associated with a few bizarre "debt elimination" scams which hold that if somebody files all the right paperwork with the government declaring themselves a sovereign citizen, they then have access to unlimited funds from the U.S. Treasury to pay off all their mortgages and other debts, similar to the theories of the redemption movement. The gist of the argument is that the Social Security Act established accounts at the U.S. Treasury for every American citizen and that declaring oneself a "sovereign citizen" gives one the legal right to issue "sight drafts" or "bills of exchange" which draw on your personal U.S. Treasury Account to pay off debts. This is not true, and those who have fallen for this scam have found the only person who gained access to any funds at all was the scammer who charged them money to learn about this bullshit debt elimination method at his seminar.
The intellectual limitations for many members of the movement is indicated by the response of a Texas motorist to a December 4, 2008 traffic stop. "I am Texas Republican sovereignty. I do not recognize this as a legal traffic stop."
Although populist anti-statism is associated with rural and small town whites in the American West, it has also appeared among urban African American squatters in the American South, where they frequently refer to themselves as Moorish, Moorish-American nationals, or subjects of either Morocco or an entirely fictional "Moorish Republic". The Atlanta Journal Constitution has described them as "paper terrorists" for squatting in empty luxury homes in south DeKalb County. DeKalb Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney John Melvin expressed class outrage when he commented that "It's amazing that these groups of citizens who like to proclaim they're Robin Hood only choose million-dollar homes. Shocking." Presumably they should do their squatting in mobile homes or hovels.
“”For those unfamiliar with sovereign citizens, their behavior can seem odd, bizarre, confusing, and seemingly indicative of mental illness. This may explain why judges, after dealing with their disruptive behavior in the courtroom, frequently request mental health evaluations, to determine competency.
|—Christine M. Sarteschi|
There have been four studies as of 2020 on the mental health status of sovereign citizens. The studies have focused on competency to stand trial as a standard because that is usually the point at which sovereign citizens are encountered by psychiatric professionals. The studies as a whole suggest that almost all sovereign citizens are competent to stand trial (a different standard than clinical mental illness). The majority of sovereign citizens encountered were not psychotic.
The problem with the sovereign citizen movement stems from its hypocritical stance that relies upon a very flawed understanding of how the law and citizenship within state societies work. In their case, rather than wholly obeying the law, sovereign citizens like to cherry pick the parts that they want to follow while simultaneously arguing that they're exempt from being governed.
By using documents of government law, whether local or federal, such as the United States Constitution, and using any part of it as a justification for being exempt from being governed, they're in fact doing the opposite: they acknowledge the Constitution is a contract with validity.
So whenever a sovereign citizen flings out the Constitution as a means to justify not being citizens, they're in fact acknowledging that they actually are citizens. Talk about a paradox.
If their misunderstanding of how citizenship within a state society works isn't enough, many sovereign citizens still receive and redeem government checks as well as other forms of federal financial aid. In short: money that's provided through taxes taken from other people which the sovereign citizens are opposed to. This is tacit admission (even if unintentional) that they are still subject to the government's authority and don't truly reject it.
Also, the term "sovereign citizen" itself hilariously reflects the oxymoron logic of the sovereign citizen movement. A quick look at the definition of the two words will show that it's impossible to be both sovereign (self-governing) and a citizen (governed). Many in the movement realize this and call themselves "sovereign individuals" or mention their "sovereign rights" instead. However, they still don't wholly reject the law and government authority enough. Thus they are not genuinely worthy of that title.
Alternatively, we can state that, in most modern democracies (especially the republican ones — so not e.g. the United Kingdom where it lies on "the Crown", which in practice means on one person alone), sovereignty lies with "the People" (e.g. the United States — "We the People" and stuff) or "the Nation", which in practice means the citizens of a sovereign State (as a whole). Thus, a person is already a sovereign citizen — alongside and jointly with all other citizens, that is.
On a more practical level, many sovereign citizens are direct and willing beneficiaries of government largess. Ammon Bundy, the leader of an anti-government militia's take-over of a wildlife refuge, took out a $530,000 loan from the federal government in 2010. Ammon's father, Cliven Bundy, almost certainly benefited from federally subsidized programs: like the $26.5 million annually given to ranchers for drought relief or the $22 million spent annually clearing predators from the federally owned grazing land that Bundy illegally used.
Hitting the Big Time
According to a 2014 survey of law-enforcement personnel, Sovereign Citizens were regarded as the number one terrorist threat in America. Lately, however, that has been overtaken by the alt-right. According to the FBI, sovereign citizens have been known to:
Sarteschi has recorded 75 instances in which sovereign citizens attempted to harm or harmed law enforcement officers (LEOs) between 1983-2020, including 27 officers who were killed. An additional 65 LEOs were wounded during the incidents. Separately, there were 19 incidence in which sovereign citizens threatened to harm LEOs.
- Freeman on the land, which adopts many sovereign citizen ideas but (so far) isn't as fond of guns
- Posse Comitatus
- Tax protestor
- Cliven Bundy
- QAnon, their latest craze
- While their reasoning is different, the point at which the Reichsbürgerbewegung ultimately arrives (and the legal trouble they get in) are rather similar
- "Sovereign" Citizen Kane, an expose on the "sovereign citizen" movement and the murder of two police officers by "sovereign citizens" Jerry and Joe Kane.
- Sovereign Citizens Movement overview by the Southern Poverty Law Center
- "Sovereign Citizens Are a Sometimes Violent Fringe Group Rejecting All Government", by Winston Ross at The Daily Beast
- Too Weird for The Wire - How black Baltimore drug dealers are using white supremacist legal theories to confound the Feds, by Kevin Carey at Washington Monthly
- 'Sovereign citizens' get 10 years for duping debtors with phony federal treasury scheme
- Kate of Gaia, who posts a lot of Truther and sovereign citizen essays.
- A long (20m) clip from the Rachel Maddow show concerning this, Posse Comitatus, Cliven Bundy and similar sorts of things.
- Quatloos!, a message board on "financial scams & frauds", includes much debunking (and mocking) of Sovereign citizen claims.
- PoliceOne.com: 9 things to prepare for when encountering Sovereign Citizens
- Snopes's take on the Sovereign Citizens.
- Sovereign citizens: A narrative review with implications of violence towards law enforcement by Christine M. Sarteschi (2020) Aggress. Violent Behav. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2020.101509.
- Renunciation of U.S. Nationality Abroad, US Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs
- Texas Appeals Court Denies Sovereign Citizen Defense, theNewspaper.com, September 7 2010
- 'Sovereign' Citizen Kane, Southern Poverty Law Center, Fall 2010
- Couple Charged With Stealing Houses, wsbtv.com, August 20, 2010
- DA: Paper terrorists stealing homes, ajc.com, August 19 2010
- Anti-Government Sovereign Citizens Taking Foreclosed Homes Using Phony Deeds, Authorities Say, ABC News, August 23, 2010
- "The Sovereign citizen movement and fitness to stand trial" by J. Pytyck & G. A. Chaimowitz (2013) International Journal of Forensic Mental Health 12(2):149–153. doi:0.1080/14999013.2013.796329.
- Competence to Stand Trial Evaluations of Sovereign Citizens: A Case Series and Primer of Odd Political and Legal Beliefs by George F. Parker (2014) Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 42(3) 338-349.
- Evaluations of Urban Sovereign Citizens' Competency to Stand Trial by Cheryl M. Paradis et al. (2018) Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 46(2):158-166. doi:10.29158/JAAPL.003758-18.
- Sovereign Citizens and Competency to Stand Trial by George F. Parker (2018) Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 46(2):167-170. doi:10.29158/JAAPL.003743-18.
- Working for the Man: Anti-government extremists who cash government paychecks, Forbes, March 5, 2012
- "Understanding Law Enforcement Intelligence Processes"
- Domestic Terrorism: The Sovereign Citizen Movement Federal Bureau of Investigation.