Entities briefed on ‘sovereign citizens’
Entities briefed on ‘sovereign citizens’
Call it a look into a world without lawyers. Or maybe a world where everyone makes up the laws and rules as he or she goes along. Where ZIP codes are a sign of overreaching government.
Trooper Richard Blanco with the Florida Highway Patrol talked about the “sovereign citizen” movement and its implications at an October 7 meeting among various state agencies, including the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and The Florida Bar’s Unlicensed Practice of Law department. The agencies meet periodically to discuss issues of common interest.
Blanco is a liaison from the State Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to a FBI task force on domestic terrorism, which includes the sovereign movement.
The sovereign movement began in the 1990s, waned in the following decade, and in recent years has made a comeback. Its members are known for deluging government offices — particularly court clerks — with paperwork and for sometimes violent confrontations with law enforcement. Blanco said 47 police officers have died in those confrontations.
“To us, we think it’s crazy. To them, it’s real.. . . They can be very violent in their beliefs,” he said.
Sovereign members have renounced their U.S. citizenship and declared they are “sovereign” citizens.
“They don’t recognize the federal government. They don’t recognize state government,” Blanco said. That includes rejecting the use of ZIP codes.
He said their ideology is based on snippets of the U.S. Constitution combined with selected biblical passages and seasoned with dashes of the Uniform Commercial Code. Although these individuals don’t recognize much of government, they tend to recognize the authority of elected sheriffs — but not their deputies. They also place great faith that anything they file through court clerks is binding or becomes offical, regardless of its merits.
Those filings, Blanco said, range from attempts to cancel mortgages, car loans, and credit card debt for esoteric reasons and multi-million-dollar liens on homes and lawsuits targeting government officials — including judges — who have angered them. Such claims can be for millions of dollars. They tend to respond to legal actions against them by trying to bury the opposition in their self-generated paperwork and filings. Blanco called it “paper terrorism.”
Blanco wryly noted that a curious feature of such “sovereign” claims is a demand to be paid in gold, since they claim not to recognize government-backed currency. However, he added, they readily accept cash from people who sign up to take their courses on the sovereign system.
Not surprisingly, sovereign citizens are big believers in conspiracy theories.
“It’s a conspiracy theory that government is conspiring against them as an organization. They’re big into debt elimination, how not to pay mortgages, car payments. It’s all about fraud. They’re selling a fraudulent belief of the sovereign citizen ideology,” Blanco said.
One of the stranger beliefs by some sovereign citizens, he said, is that the government has set up a secret fund for every person born in the U.S., and if a person can discover the right code or documentation, that person will receive the riches of his or her account.
Contrary to what might be expected, sovereign citizens are educated, generally middle class, and are diverse, he said. Many also have criminal records that are sometimes relatively minor issues from their scrapes with authority, but sometimes the crimes are serious, including murder.
There were an estimated 200,000 or so followers in the 1990s. The membership currently may be as high as 400,000, Blanco said.
Groups in various areas can have interesting quirks. Blanco said a group in the Jacksonville area models itself after an old Moorish kingdom, including adopting Moorish names. They often rely on their own paperwork instead of the legally required court procedure for name changes.
Some groups have also issued their own drivers’ licenses, and Blanco said he’s experienced frustration trying to prosecute some people for violating state laws on name changes and drivers’ licenses. The former, he said, is particularly worrisome since some sovereign practitioners have serious criminal records, which won’t be evident to police in casual contacts when they use their new names.
Blanco advised the agency officials dealing with sovereign citizens to take their filings or whatever papers they are submitting and not to engage in unnecessary conversation. Many are looking for a verbal confrontation, he said, but will try to control the argument according to their own arcane logic and principles.
Most attorneys, he said, are unlikely to have direct dealings with sovereign citizens.
“The only interaction between sovereign citizens and attorneys I’ve witnessed is the declination of representation during court proceedings where charges have been filed against them. Most insist on representing themselves to disrupt the court process and procedures,” he said.
One attorney who has experience is Lori Holcomb, the Bar’s director of client protection who oversees the Bar’s UPL efforts. Her experience dates back to the 1990s, including one group in Tampa that set up its own court that was granting divorces and looking into performing adoptions when law enforcement, with help from the Bar, closed the operation down and sent the leader to jail.
“Every now and then, we get a UPL complaint against them for representing another person in a court proceeding or filing something in a court proceeding,” Holcomb said. “They don’t believe in government or the authority of court; therefore, when you have the court or the Bar telling them not to do something, they don’t believe in that.. . . They are a power unto themselves.”
She has seen voluminous filings by sovereign citizens, but, she said, aside from the volume, the difficulty can be figuring out what they want, since the filings cite their obscure philosophies and doctrine.