Joseph, a self-styled sovereign citizen, thinks mankind has been “hoodwinked” into bowing to governmental authority, making him one of a growing number of Americans who register their alienation from local, state and federal government with nuisance lawsuits, refusal to pay taxes and even violence in extreme cases.
“All are born into the sovereign domain of the prime creator,” Joseph, who declined to give his full name or location, told FoxNews.com in an email. “No code can ever abridge that fact, no amount of manmade thought or words on paper can ever abridge that. Today man has lost sight of himself so bad that he will blindly follow, believe or succumb to anything considered an authority outside or seemingly above himself.”
Dubbed sovereign citizens by law enforcement, the movement numbers anywhere from 80,000 to 300,000 nationwide, according to experts contacted by FoxNews.com. While many live on society's fringe and pose no immediate threat, police are being trained to be wary of sovereign citizens, knowing that they may not respect cops' authority and could be prone to violence.
“We’re five years into a major resurgence of the sovereign citizens movement and even with that, most Americans have no idea that the sovereign citizens movement exists,” said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League. “It has this uncanny ability to fly under the radar screen.”
"This kind of ideology spreads like wildfire."
- Mark Potok, Southern Poverty Law Center
The anti-government view of sovereign citizens made headlines last month when a Las Vegas couple was accused of plotting to abduct police officers at random and interrogate them in "trials" that would be videotaped and released to the public. David Brutsche, 42, and his accomplice, 68-year-old paralegal Devon Newman, never carried out their alleged plan, but the case was enough to send a chill through the law enforcement community.
Sovereign citizens have no leader, no headquarters and no secret handshake. The term is most often bestowed on them by academics, activists and law enforcement authorities, and not one embraced by so-called members.
"Sovereign citizens don’t call themselves that,” JJ MacNab, who is currently writing a book on the movement, recently blogged. "In fact, if you ask a person if she is a member of the movement, she is likely to respond that the ‘sovereign citizen’ label is an oxymoron, and that she is an individual seeking the truth."
Experts trace the movement to the 1980s, when government protesters exploited the farm crisis by selling fraudulent debt relief programs. That morphed into today's subculture, powered by so-called “paper terrorists” who clog court systems with bogus filings, refuse to pay income taxes and, on occasion, commit violent acts against law enforcement officers.
In extreme cases, sovereign citizens forgo financial schemes and become violent when confronted by cops, most recently in 2010 when Jerry and Joseph Kane, a father-and-son sovereign citizen team, fatally shot two police officers in Arkansas during a routine traffic stop. In the past decade, seven killings of law enforcement officers have been blamed on sovereign citizens.
“It becomes their personal Alamo, their stand against the illegitimate government,” said Pitcavage, who said no signs exist that the number of sovereign citizens in the United States will decrease.
Adherents of the movement believe the U.S. government creates a secret identity for each citizen at birth that controls a clandestine U.S. Treasury account totaling up to $20 million, which is used as collateral for foreign debt. And by filing enough bogus legal documents, including fake liens and false foreclosure notices, sovereign citizens believe they can game the system, ultimately eliminating personal debt or defrauding corporations.
“This is a movement that breeds con artists who form fake entities, countries and even fake Native American tribes,” Pitcavage told FoxNews.com. “They feel entitled to everything and they’re willing to bully anyone to get it.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which released an authoritative study on the movement in 2010, estimated that up to 300,000 U.S. citizens consider themselves sovereign citizens, with about 100,000 being seriously involved in its techniques. Since that time, the movement has seen an uptick in Canada and amongst African-Americans, while a growing number of sovereign citizens have also moved into foreclosed homes across the country, notably in California, Florida and Georgia, according to Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Center.
“The reason that this particular segment of the movement has grown so rapidly it because it essentially promises them something for nothing,” Potok told FoxNews.com. “I think that’s a big piece of it — simple greed mixed with a healthy dose of conspiracy theory with no basis in reality.”
Potok said previous incarnations of the movement include the Montana Freemen, or so-called “organic citizens” who believed they’re outside the jurisdiction of federal and state laws. And while figures are difficult to confirm, Potok said anecdotal evidence shows that the sovereign citizens movement has continued to grow in recent years thanks to the faltering economy and growing feelings amongst Americans that big government is a threat.
“This kind of ideology spreads like wildfire,” Potok said. “It’s very much spread around the country and the fact that it’s in Canada suggests that even national borders won’t contain it … And this used to a white phenomenon, you couldn’t be a sovereign citizen early on if you weren’t white. But that part of the ideology has been forgotten.”
FBI officials, meanwhile, characterize sovereign citizens on a wide spectrum, some dismissed as mere nuisances while others are accused of specializing in financial scams or impersonating law enforcement officers. The domestic terrorist movement has also had some high-profile followers, including Terry Nichols, who assisted Timothy McVeigh in planning the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that killed 168 people.
"The FBI is not in a position to comment on numbers, but any time we receive information that an individual or group of individuals has, or intends to, violate federal law through use of force or violence for the purpose of furthering an ideological cause, the FBI will aggressively pursue that investigation," FBI officials said in a statement to FoxNews.com.
MacNab has called for additional training for cops across the country to identify this growing population segment, which she claims can include anyone: black, white, urban, rural, young and old, conservative and liberal.
Historical hotspots have included pockets of Missouri, Ohio and Michigan, as well as central Florida, but now a “fair amount” of sovereign citizens can be found in every state, Pitcavage said.
“This movement has been in a state of growth for several years now and we have not seen any signs of it slowing,” he told FoxNews.com. “And that could mean more people killed, more standoffs, more paper terrorism.”