The “sovereign citizen” cult

by Walter Olson on May 7, 2014

A big source of frivolous litigation these days, the “sovereign citizen” cult originated on the political right but has now spread more widely [Lorelei Laird, ABA Journal]:

When involved in any legal matter, from pet licensing to serious criminal charges, sovereigns are known for filing legal-sounding gibberish, usually pro se, learned from other sovereigns who sell lessons in “law” online. Frequently, they cite the Uniform Commercial Code, maritime law and the Bible.

They’re also known for the sheer volume of their filings, which can double the size of a normal docket. …

Some sovereigns hold trials in their own “common-law courts,” convicting public officials in absentia and sentencing them to death for “treason.” …Sovereigns sometimes say they are subject only to “God’s law” or to “common law,” meaning the U.S. legal system as they believe it existed before the conspiracy. They may declare themselves independent nations, join fictional American Indian tribes or attempt to create a replacement government within the sovereign community.

Don’t assume that public officials and public employees are the only ones swept in:

The Atta family locked up their Temecula, Calif., home and went on vacation in 2012. While they were gone, Victor Cheng moved in.

Cheng had owned the home before the Attas, but he lost it in foreclosure. Nonetheless, he filed a fraudulent deed with the county recorder’s office, transferred the utilities into his name and even tried to evict the Attas after their return. During his prosecution for burglary, trespassing and filing a false document, he insisted that he was not the person being prosecuted because the indictment spelled his name in all capital letters.

Full story here.

{ 4 comments }

1 Raymond Reichelt 05.07.14 at 9:33 am

These sovereign citizens remind me of an English phrase, “sea lawyer” which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as:

An eloquently and obstinately argumentative person: ‘one of those mouthy sea lawyers full of pseudo-intellectual yammer’

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/sea-lawyer

2 Walter Olson 05.07.14 at 10:07 am

Thanks. “Sea lawyer” calls up (for me at least) a distinct picture of someone railing on without fear of being disproved because in a ship on the high seas it would have been impossible for listeners to look up the actual law to check what he was saying.

3 wfjag 05.07.14 at 1:12 pm

If you deal with any members of the sovereign citizen movements, do not take them lightly. Some of them are very dangerous. I recently attended a domestic terrorism training class. One of the presenters was the Chief of Police, West Memphis, Ark. His son, and another West Memphis PD officer, pulled over a white van for a traffic violation. The occupants were a father and son, sovereign citizen team, who were transporting automatic weapons. The policemen were executed (while the dash-cam recorded it). The van was later stopped in a mall parking lot, where a fire-fight ensued.

Unlike most of the threats lawyers receive — from angry opponents blowing off steam — if you deal with someone associated with one of these movements (there are several, which have loose or less associations), take the threat seriously. While most of the people who subscibe to the movements are, at worst, pain in the butt cranks, there is a dangerous fringe.

4 Chris M. 05.08.14 at 7:24 am

Sea lawyer is a 19th century British term which refers to educated men who (usually because of debt, which was imprisonable at the time but for which you could not be arrested on board a ship) ended up as part of the ordinary crew of a ship, especially a warship.

These men were accused of using their education to persuade the rest of the crew (who were generally semi-literate) to question orders and sometimes to munity.

I think this fits pretty well with the leaders of these sovereign citizen movements.

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