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Surviving Your Next Sovereign Citizen

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This scenario will sound familiar to many criminal attorneys:  you’re in court, the DA calls the next case, and the judge asks John Q. Defendant how he pleads?

“Your Honor, I am not ‘JOHN Q. DEFENDANT,’ which is a fictional corporate entity. I am a natural living being, appearing pro per on behalf of John Q. Defendant, free citizen, for the limited purpose of challenging jurisdiction….” What follows next is a confusing series of questions to the judge about standing and injured parties, and quasi-legal arguments full of buzz words about the U.C.C., admiralty court, strawmen, right to travel, capital letters, red ink, fiduciaries, de facto government, accepted for value, etc. On and on and on it goes, for however long the court is willing to listen.

Yep, you’ve got a “sovereign citizen” on your hands.

Readers may have different opinions on the best way to handle these defendants in court (which I hope you will share in the comments), but I recommend taking the simplest approach of all: don’t play the game.

Who are sovereign citizens?

Retired SOG faculty member Michael Crowell wrote this helpful “Quick Quide” which summarizes the movement, and the Southern Poverty Law Center also has an informative write-up about them. In short, “sovereign citizen” is used as a catch-all term to describe a wide range of groups and organizations (Freemen on the Land, Washitaw Nation, Moorish Sovereign Movement, tax protesters, white supremacists, and others) who, for various reasons, claim they are exempt from the law and not subject to the court’s jurisdiction. Their beliefs are usually based on convoluted readings of commercial law and the 14th Amendment, conspiracy theories involving the U.S. Treasury, some wishful thinking, and misinformation from other defendants who promise them that “it really works.”

These defendants have been making their arguments (without success) for many years now, but the movement is still going. Just ask Jared Fogle, the former Subway pitchman, who tried to overturn his federal sex crime convictions with a pro se sovereign citizen filing a few months ago. It was denied.

Are there any valid legal arguments behind their theories?

No. There are relatively few North Carolina appellate cases dealing with sovereign citizens, in part because these defendants often represent themselves and have difficulty perfecting an appeal. But the limited number of cases to reach the North Carolina Court of Appeals have, not surprisingly, failed. E.g., State v. Phillips I, 149 N.C. App. 310 (2002) (discussion and rejection of several common sovereign citizen arguments); State v. Rogers, 808 S.E.2d 156, 158, fn.1 (N.C. App. 2017) (“[C]ourts repeatedly have been confronted with sovereign citizens’ attempts to delay judicial proceedings, and summarily have rejected their legal theories as frivolous”), quoting State v. Faulkner, 792 S.E.2d 836, 842 (N.C. App. 2016). The Fourth Circuit has likewise rejected these arguments in federal court. E.g., U.S. v. Underwood, __ Fed. Appx. __, 2018 WL 1252115 (4th Cir. 2018) (unpublished) (defendant’s sovereign citizen arguments “ha[d] no conceivable validity in American law” and “did not support the conclusion that the district court lacked jurisdiction over his prosecution”).

Then why are these cases so frustrating and time-consuming?

It’s not because of what the defendant is saying – it’s because of what he’s not saying.

The criminal justice system usually operates with some degree of cooperation and participation by the defendant. Come stand over here. Fill out this financial affidavit. Sign this waiver form. Do you understand the charges? What do you want to do about a lawyer? How do you intend to plead?

Instead of answering those questions, sovereign citizens interrupt the judge, demand to see a “certificate” of jurisdiction, and read lengthy statements into the record. If the judge and attorneys are not prepared for this kind of non-response, there may be some confusion about how to move on to the next step in the process. Sovereign citizens see this as evidence that their strategy is “working,” and take it as encouragement to keep trying.

So how should prosecutors (and the court) handle these defendants?

First, as general guidance, review Michael Crowell’s helpful tips for court personnel on dealing with sovereign citizens. These suggestions are from a few years ago, but still good advice. The key is to simply refuse to play along.

At the risk of overstating the obvious — yes, the court is required to have jurisdiction. And yes, if there is a genuine factual dispute as to that issue, the state may even be required to prove it to the jury. But there is no requirement that the judge (or anyone else) engage in lengthy discussions with the defendant to try to convince him that jurisdiction exists. Whether it’s a nonsensical argument made in open court or a frivolous written motion filed with the clerk, the judge can promptly rule that he or she has considered the argument and determined that as a matter of law, and pursuant to the cases cited above, the defendant has failed to state a valid basis for relief under G.S. 15A-954(a)(8) or any other grounds, so the motion is denied.

Then move on. And keep moving.

When the defendant refuses to accept or reject the plea offer, and only wants to argue with the prosecutor at the bar? Set it for trial, announce the date, and move to the next case on the docket. See G.S. 7A-49.4.

When the defendant refuses to enter a plea of either guilty or not guilty? Record that fact, and then proceed to try the defendant “as if he had pleaded not guilty.” See G.S. 15A-941(a).

When the defendant interrupts the trial and refuses to follow the judge’s instructions? The court has its contempt powers under Chapter 5A, and the inherent authority to take “whatever legitimate steps are necessary to maintain proper decorum and appropriate atmosphere in the courtroom during a trial.” See State v. Dickerson, 9 N.C. App. 387 (1970).

In other words, just remember that a sovereign citizen’s cooperation is not actually required to successfully resolve the case.

What about counsel?

Many sovereign citizens will want to represent themselves, although they may deny that they are “proceeding pro se” and insist that they are only “appearing pro per.” That’s fine. “Pro per” is an abbreviation of “in propria persona,” meaning “in one’s own person,” and it serves the same purpose here as “pro se.”

But before allowing a defendant to represent himself, G.S. 15A-1242 requires that the judge make a “thorough inquiry” and be satisfied that the defendant understands his right to counsel, the nature of the charges and proceedings, and the consequences of deciding to represent himself. It can be difficult and time-consuming to get through that discussion with a sovereign citizen, but if the court is able to do it, then the defendant’s unusual legal beliefs do not necessarily preclude him from pro se representation. See State v. Faulkner, 792 S.E.2d 836 (N.C. App. 2016) (sovereign citizen’s waiver of counsel for a probation violation hearing was valid, despite twice stating that he did not understand some part of what the judge said – appellate court considered the colloquy as a whole, deferred to trial court’s assessment of defendant’s credibility, and noted that “a defendant’s contention that he ‘does not understand’ the proceedings is a common aspect of a ‘sovereign citizen’ defense”).

Or the defendant may ask for standby counsel under G.S. 15A-1243. That’s also allowed, but defense attorneys should be wary of getting sucked into the “hybrid representation” trap, which is not allowed. A defendant can appear pro se, or he can have counsel represent him, but he can’t have it both ways. See State v. Glenn, 221 N.C. App. 143 (2012); State v. Thomas, 331 N.C. 671 (1992).

“Paper Terrorism” and Other Risks

Finally, prosecutors should be prepared to respond to any attempts at intimidation or retaliation by sovereign citizen defendants. This usually takes the form of fraudulent legal filings, which may include filing false liens against the property of anyone involved in the case. This tactic is addressed by G.S. 14-118.6, which not only empowers the registers of deeds and clerks of court to refuse to accept a lien or encumbrance if they have a reasonable suspicion it is false (subject to a hearing), but also makes it a Class I felony to file such a false lien or encumbrance.

In the most extreme cases, if the defendant engages in repetitive frivolous filings, bogus lawsuits, and so on, the court may consider entering a “gatekeeper order,” which is essentially a pre-filing injunction that bars the person from filing any new suits or papers without the court’s prior approval.

For most judges and attorneys, a sovereign citizen encounter will involve some frustration and delay, but it does not usually pose a serious risk to their personal safety. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case for police officers, detention staff, and others who are called upon to maintain order in the courtroom or confront sovereign citizens out on the road. So please, be cautious in those situations, and make sure you have backup available nearby.

8 comments on “Surviving Your Next Sovereign Citizen

  1. At one time I was very angered whenever I had to deal with these individuals in district court proceedings, but once I realized that you simply can’t talk sense into them, I learned to enjoy it. I would other attorneys know that it was happening, and they would come watch. They were often times very entertaining. The judges were 50/50 “lets just enjoy this for a bit and hear what kind of nonsense he has to say” and “if you interrupt me one more time you are going to be held in contempt and you will be in the sheriff’s custody.”

    One time, the judge held the man in contempt and the next morning, while still in custody, he was much more pleasant – “Yes, your honor, sorry, your honor, yes I would like to sign that waiver now, your honor.” It seems the jail cell instills more respect for the judge and court.

  2. I don’t get why some judges, who will toss somebody from their court for sagging pants or find contempt for a slammed door, will put up with this Sovereign nonsense. Blow the whistle for unsportsmanlike conduct, 15 yard penalty, Sheriff he’s in your custody. Have a nice day. Come back when you can play by the rules.

    • I told the first one I had while on the bench I would call ICE and have them transport him back to his homeland. That did it for those in Wayne County even being filed. The Clerks appreciated that!

  3. I’d like to hear from a sovereign citizen a concise explanation of his/her legal theories. Surely it isn’t entirely hogwash.

    • So I’m not a sovereign citizen but I’ve read up on it. The most basic concept is that they believe that the current US government is illegitimate, and there are two classes of citizens – sovereigns and those who either by birth (usually black people, because they believe that the 14th amendment made them citizens in exchange for giving up their rights to the government) or because they voluntarily gave up their rights by contracting with the government. In the sovereign view, applying for a drivers license, social security number, paying taxes, etc are all “agreeing” to become subject to governmental jurisdiction. They also believe that each person who is born has both a corporate entity, with their name written in all caps like on a driver’s license, and a separate flesh-and-blood person with the same name but not in all caps. Another common belief is that the US government creates a funded secret account at birth for each new “corporate” person and if you know how you can get access to the money or use it to fund your debts. They believe that the government has pledged you and your future earnings to foreign countries as collateral for America’s debts.

      Yes, this seems nuts to you and I. A few of their beliefs are echoed in reality, though. For instance, it’s common for doctors to set themselves up as professional corporations (ie. “Dr. John Smith MD PC”) for liability protection, so while you are treated by flesh-and-blood Dr. John Smith, if he screws up you have to sue corporate entity Dr. John Smith MD PC who conveniently never maintains any assets. As to the US Gov’t being illegitimate, well, my wife is Native American and while she is not anti-government, it’s not hard to see at least a defensible argument among some Natives that a group of white newcomers signing a piece of paper in Philadelphia in 1776 did not create legitimate rights over people who had already been here for thousands of years.

      It’s especially hard on courts though because the movement is kind of loose and so each sovereign or group has their own interpretations and rules and often pseudo-legal terminology making it difficult for police and judges to prepare for how to deal with them. For judges in particular, they have to deal with the dual difficulties of having to protect the rights of sovereign defendants including dealing with many pro-se litigants who won’t cooperate with the court system because they view any form of cooperation, including answering “yes” to a simple question like “Are you John Smith?” from the court, as a form of contract with the government that causes them to lose their sovereign status.

  4. Follow-up: For an interesting read on when a sovereign citizen’s obstructive behavior may constitute a forfeiture of his right to counsel, see State v. Mee, 233 N.C. App. 542 (2014).

  5. Here’s a great video of one of the most patient judges in the country tossing a sovereign citizen’s arguments right back at him:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7h7uevwxt8

    It really is great to watch.

  6. Interesting news article re: more than two dozen sovereign citizens arrested in Robeson County today. Defendants are charged with running unlicensed casinos, marijuana grow operations, and their own police force:

    https://www.wral.com/robeson-casinos-raided-dozens-of-sovereign-citizens-arrested/17715724/

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