WASHINGTON – The FBI has been paying closer attention to 'sovereign citizen' extremists around the country out of concerns that they will react violently when they interact with government officials.
Sovereign citizens are people who reject their U.S. citizenship and don't recognize government authority, like laws and taxes. In 2009, the FBI started paying closer attention to the movement, which previously had been grouped with the militia movements in the bureau's domestic counterterrorism operations. Many people who claim to be followers of this movement are involved in white collar crimes like tax evasion schemes and making fraudulent documents, the FBI said.
"We started to notice a heightened potential for violence," said Stuart McArthur, deputy assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division.
Speaking to reporters at the FBI's national headquarters, McArthur said that while sovereign citizen ideologies are protected by the constitution, there have been instances when extremist members have turned to violence. "The thing about generally sovereign citizen extremists is that because their ideology just intrinsically deals with the rejection, complete rejection, of the constitutional authority of the United States or any other government for that matter ... that when you have an encounter with law enforcement, we have seen that has a potential to go high and right very fast," McArthur said.
McArthur used the 2010 example of when a man and his son shot and killed two police officers during a traffic stop in West Memphis, Ark. The man was a sovereign citizen who previously had only been on the FBI's radar for white collar scams, he said.
Since the enhanced focus on the group starting in 2009, the FBI created a national strategy to address the issue, which includes briefing state and local law enforcement around the country on signs to look for and how to prevent violence.
Casey Carty, a supervisor in the bureau's domestic terrorism section that leads the sovereign citizen extremist program, said that people in the sovereign citizen movement do not tend to gravitate to one specific part of the country and reside in nearly every state. Carty also said that age, gender and race are not consistent among the movement's followers.