By Thom Jackson, Captain, Nevada Department of Public Safety/Nevada Highway Patrol
n August 2012, a police officer in Las Vegas stopped a truck for paper license plates that read simply, “Department of Transportation.” During the contact, the woman driving stated repeatedly, “I am not under contract with you” and would not provide a driver’s license, vehicle registration, or proof of insurance. As the officer politely pressed for the documentation required for her to drive legally in Nevada, the woman called someone on the phone and requested specific directions from a male voice at the other end. Through records checks, the officer learned that the truck was in fact properly registered and the woman was properly licensed, but she refused to give those items to the officer. The stop ended peacefully when the officer ticketed the woman for not surrendering her documentation, but encounters with sovereign citizens do not always end so well.
|Note: Many people in the United States adhere to a sovereign citizen ideology. Most of them do not commit any crimes, and their views are constitutionally protected. This article discusses only the criminal element among the sovereign citizen movement.|
The sovereign citizens movement is a relative of the posse comitatus and militia movements and is believed to be rapidly expanding in the United States. The basic premise is that the federal government is all one big conspiracy to collect money from the citizens. The details of the conspiracy vary from one sect to another, but all agree the federal government is engaging people in secret contracts when we sign documents like driver’s licenses and social security cards. Generally, the first contract we are duped into is at birth, when issued a birth certificate, and it only gets worse from there. Members of the movement, sometimes known as sovereigns, actively reject their U.S. citizenship and rely on their God-given rights as a sovereign citizen. Some embrace citizenship of a state or a county, but some do not recognize any conventional government authority. The movement is politically far right wing, feverishly preaching limited government and nearly unlimited personal freedoms. The ideology rests on the concept that there are only two basic laws:
- Do all you have agreed to do, and
- Do not encroach on other persons or their property.
All other laws are part of the grand, corporate scheme to control people and collect money from them. They believe victimless violations are not crimes. For example, driving under the influence and speeding are not crimes unless the driver crashes and someone is victimized. The sovereign view of the federal government is summed up on the sovereign content website, http://www.buildfreedom.com/tl/pct07.shtml, with, “The enemy wants to rob you. That’s how he gets his income and makes a living. Ultimately, it’s your own determination, ingenuity, and resourcefulness that will deflect the enemy to seek out an easier mark.”
Many sovereigns seek to opt out of their U.S. citizenship by filing or recording legal—or legal-appearing—documents. The documents state that the sovereign rejects any “hidden or adhesion contracts” supposedly triggered by things such as using Federal Reserve Notes, a bank account, a social security number, a driver’s license, state license plates on a car, tax returns, birth certificates, marriage licenses, public school systems, declaration of U.S. citizenship, voter registrations, or even 2-letter state abbreviations and zip codes. However, many sovereigns concede that it is difficult to actually not use any of those things, so they conform under protest. Behavior like the driver’s in Las Vegas may be common.
Who Are They?
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there may be as many as 300,000 sovereigns in the United States, with varying degrees of commitment to the cause. Their individual motivations may range from a desire to not pay taxes to a true and deep sense of patriotism and dissatisfaction with the current federal government. They may simply protest the current system, but actually follow the rules, or they may reject the system entirely and follow no regulatory rules at all. Most fall somewhere in between. There are many of them, and they can be found all over the United States.
Most of the sovereigns’ crimes are nonviolent, such as fraudulent liens and tax evasion, but some are very dangerous. Many sovereigns identify with Revolutionary War Minutemen or militia movements. Their forums on the Internet commonly have references to defending their perceived rights with violence if confronted by law enforcement. The tragic murders of two Saint John Parish Louisiana Deputies in August 2012 and two West Memphis, Arkansas, Police Officers in May 2010 give testimony to the dangers some sovereigns pose. Since the year 2000, at least six officers have been killed by known sovereigns.
Officer Safety on Traffic Stops
Recognize danger signs. Many sovereigns are public about their beliefs and will advertise them on their vehicles. “No Trespassing” or “Don’t Tread On Me” signs or obviously unofficial license plates can warn an officer of a possible encounter with a sovereign. Officers must approach these individuals with a heightened sense of caution and request backup immediately. The most common tactic for sovereigns is a steadfast refusal to provide information or comply with simple instructions. They may respond to any question with a counterquestion like, “Under what authority are you detaining me?” They also may even produce an official-looking questionnaire with distracting content like, “Will public servant read aloud the portion of the law authorizing the questions public servant will ask (yes or no),” to delay and confound the officer. See a good example of a sovereign questionnaire at http://www.rexano.org/RegAgency/Public_Servant_Questionnaire%20_adapted_by_Bob_Hurt.pdf.
One response to these tactics is a patient but guarded and methodical approach to find the information needed. Establish the individual’s identity. Ask about weapons and keep the individual under close watch by your backup. Get the vehicle identification number. As stated on the sovereigns’ website, their goal is to make the contact so difficult and confusing that the officer chooses to simply ignore violations. A growing tactic is videotaping every encounter. Take videotaping in stride, and behave with your customary professionalism. If they are videotaping, they are in essence acting as a freelance journalist and are within their rights. I always ask where the tape will be posted on the Internet, so I can enjoy watching myself later. When you know what you need to know, take the appropriate enforcement action.
The sovereign movement is probably here to stay, in some form or another. Although sovereigns present some special challenges, professional law enforcement agencies are dealing with them successfully every day. Educate yourselves, do not underestimate the danger, and act in collaboration with allied agencies. ♦
|How Can a Chief Help?|
- Ensure officers are educated about the sovereign citizen movement and the dangers sovereigns might pose.
- Be sure that your patrol and safety training includes current information about sovereigns.
- Beyond the immediate physical danger of violence, some sovereigns embark on campaigns of filing false liens and harassing lawsuits against perceived enemies like officers. Can your agency’s legal counsel assist an officer victimized by a sovereign?
- Many sovereigns are mobile and actively seek to minimize their footprints in government databases, so information sharing with allied agencies might be essential. Good intelligence may lead to identifying potentially violent sovereigns, so an agency can respond effectively.
Please cite as:
Thom Jackson, "Sovereign Citizens on Traffic Stops," Officer Safety Corner, The Police Chief 80 (February 2013): 14–15.