Georgia lawmaker tries to shield officers from 'sovereign citizen' harassment

Tim Shaw, a police chief in Temple, Ga., remembers well his run-in with a "sovereign citizen."

The individual, part of a movement that claims the laws of the land do not apply to them, started harassing him about a year ago, following a traffic stop by one of his officers.

The individual began sending a string of bizarre legal documents demanding more than $800,000. Shaw then received a set of driving directions -- from his harasser's house to his house, and to his parent's house in Florida.

"He was trying to extort over $800,000 out of me," Shaw said.

Thankfully for the chief, the suspect was foolish enough to threaten him. Shaw obtained a protective order, and the matter was resolved.

But the "sovereign citizens" movement has started to hassle other officials in the state and beyond. And one Georgia lawmaker is trying to change the law to address the problem.

State Rep. B.J. Pak is pushing a bill aimed directly at a favorite tactic of sovereign citizens -- filing false liens, similar to what happened to Shaw.

Pak's bill, which has passed out of committee, would call for up to 10 years imprisonment for filing such a false lien.

The FBI considers sovereign citizens to be "extremists," with their offenses ranging from the minor to the severe -- like the 2010 killing of two police officers in Arkansas during a routine traffic stop. The FBI has listed movement efforts in California Missouri, Nevada, Michigan and New Hamsphire, among others.

The movement preaches an off-the-grid lifestyle, though not necessarily a violent one. The Sovereign Citizenship Network website describes the movement as the "non-violent solution to the government problem."

The group urges Americans to "unsubscribe from the system" and "sever yourself from the government" in order to become "the king of your own private domains" -- offering tips on how to deal with pesky infringements by the state like traffic court.

As part of the "sovereign" revolt against authority figures, the protesters will occasionally target judges, law enforcement officers and other arms of the state with mumbo-jumbo legal claims -- for instance, claims against their property via lien that they owe huge sums of money.

Pak told he's heard of about five cases in Georgia alone where officials were targeted with these fraudulent claims. His bill, he said, "gives them another tool to fight them."

The claims can cause more trouble than one might expect. Even when they have no merit, the claims filed by "sovereign citizens" look legitimate at first. A town clerk is then compelled to accept the document.

From there, the judge or police officer who is the target suddenly finds the lien in his or her records -- and is forced to fight it in court. Pak noted that a false lien could cause problems if the victim tries to sell a house or acquire a security clearance, not to mention the damage it could do to their credit score.

"They financially harass these people," Pak said.

Prosecutors can use a general obstruction charge to go after the harassers, but Pak said his bill would create a more specific crime and heighten the penalty.

In Shaw's case, his harasser didn't actually file a false lien. The individual later acknowledged in court that was his eventual plan. Shaw told that in an act of foresight, he made sure his protective order stipulated the individual could not take that step.

"I was kind of blessed ... I was blessed to get the correspondence that I got from him because he took it a little further than most of them do," Shaw said.

But he said other officers need more protection.

John Bankhead, spokesman with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, recalled another recent case where someone who sympathized with the sovereign citizen movement went after a string of county officials with false liens.

"There's nothing really on the books here in Georgia at the present time to specifically address this kind of criminal activity," he said.

Pak recalled how, when he was a prosecutor, one of the defendants he prosecuted also filed a lien against him and tried to claim he owed $2 million.

Pak said he wasn't sure his harasser was aligned with the sovereign citizens movement.

But the movement has grown nationally. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are roughly 100,000 "hard-core sovereign believers" in the country, with another 200,000 flirting with sovereign ideas.

"I would consider them a little crazy -- well, out of the ordinary. In their mind, they probably think they're fine," Pak said.