The Biden-Harris administration recently recognized “anti-government violent extremists… as being one of the most lethal elements of today’s domestic terrorism threat.” Sovereign citizens are individuals who are recognized as being anti-government extremists. Sovereigns have been mischaracterized by some as a nonviolent group whose existence is mainly just a problem for the U.S. court system. One author characterized how sovereign citizens are viewed “as obstructionists of the legal system, tying up the courts with spurious lawsuits of the legal system.”
Undoubtedly, sovereign citizens are “paper terrorists” in that bureaucratic respect, but experts have also described them as a violent domestic terrorist threat. Too often, their potential for violence is minimized by the public and the popular press.
Sovereign citizens are most straightforwardly an anti-government group. They self-identify as sovereign citizens and are recognized by their beliefs. Each sovereign citizen group has its own specific dogma, but they share in common non-varying core beliefs: the United States government is not valid, none of its laws are valid, and as such no court or law enforcement officer has power over the sovereign citizen.
One group, Moorish sovereign citizens, was involved in an armed standoff in Wakefield, Massachusetts over July 4th weekend. A group of heavily armed men, owning a YouTube channel named Rise of the Moors, was reportedly stopped by the Massachusetts State Police. They stated to the investigating officers that they were “traveling to our private land to train.” “The men refused to put down their weapons or comply with authorities’ orders, claiming to be from a group ‘that does not recognize our laws’ before taking off into a wooded area, police said,” the Associated Press reported.
Moors believe that all of the land contained within the borders of the United States of America, and everything built upon that land, belongs to them. They believe the Moors were the first inhabitants of America and thus own all the land. This is best exemplified by Moorish sovereigns who brazenly break into homes, empty or occupied, and claim the home and its contents as their own. This happened to a family in Kansas when a sovereign citizen took up residence in their home. She refused to leave because the laws of “God” made her actions acceptable and legal. That is merely one in a string of recent incidents, as J.J. MacNab, a fellow at the George Washington University GW Program on Extremism, explained.
All sovereign citizen groups, Moors included, are anti-government groups whose ideology and behavior call for the overthrow of the U.S. government or violent resistance to it. I have been documenting acts of violence performed by sovereigns for several years. I have amassed at least 250 cases of violence, including arson,child abuse, rape, sexual assault, attempted kidnapping, mass shootings, and homicides. These cases underscore their capacity for violence.
Sovereign citizens believe that they are immune from all federal, state, and local laws. They reject the legitimacy of the U.S. government, all of its courts, and all of its laws. Devotees attempt to justify their beliefs with non-sensical pseudo-legal scripts, presented in and to the courts, often literally cut-and-pasted from sovereign citizen websites. These attempts to prove their immunity to all current US laws are wholly unsuccessful, yet it does not deter them from making additional attempts, and their movement is spreading.
Sovereigns are not confused about the law or in need of education or instruction. Rather, they refuse to accept traditional interpretations of the law and are choosing to commit illegal acts. Their willingness to break the law, along with their self-assured confrontational and belligerent defense of their illegal behavior, is what makes them dangerous.
One of the deadliest domestic terrorism attacks in the United States – the Oklahoma City bombing — was carried out by a well-known sovereign citizen, Terry Nichols, an accomplice of Timothy McVeigh.
In May 2021, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security released a 40-page, congressionally mandated, national security report regarding domestic terrorism. Sovereign citizen violent extremists (SCVEs) were among a grouping of anarchist and militia extremists who were said to have presented the greatest threats of violence in 2017. Sovereign citizens were involved in 15% of the 84 FBI-designated domestic terrorism incidents in the United States between 2015 and 2019, the majority of which were violent in nature. Many of these cases involved the targeting of law enforcement officers.
The killing of law enforcement officers by sovereign citizens was the subject of an analysis that I performed in 2020. I collected cases of sovereign citizens who attempted to harm, who threatened to harm, who did harm, or who killed law enforcement officers. The case details were often disturbing. One case involved a sovereign in a high-speed police chase who, during the chase, called 911 proclaiming that he had the right to kill police under a certain statute of the Uniform Commercial Code. After he crashed his vehicle, severely injuring two people, he held a press conference again declaring that he had the right to kill police officers and could not legally be prosecuted for doing so.
Unsurprisingly, I also found that traffic stops involving sovereign citizens were especially dangerous for police officers. People who identify themselves as sovereign citizens tend to be argumentative, confrontational, and belligerent toward the police. They fervently argue that the police have no authority over them and make claims that they are not driving but are instead “traveling.” Why that term? Though they are operating a motor vehicle, no “driving” laws apply to them because they have redefined operating a motor vehicle on public roads to be termed “traveling,” which is a guaranteed right of movement in their view. They are irate, angry, and often violent when a police officer fails to comprehend their redefinition. Often, they have to be forcibly removed from their vehicles or attempt to flee the scene. Officers are frequently attacked. Two officers have had the tips of their thumbs bitten off; others have been ambushed, physically attacked, shot, or killed. One officer was seriously injured when his arm was trapped in a sovereign’s vehicle as the sovereign sped away.
One of the most well-known cases of sovereign citizen violence is likely the killing of two police officers by Jerry Kane Jr. and his then 16-year-old son, Joseph Kane. Officers Brandon Paudert and Bill Evans pulled over the Kanes’ vehicle because of their illegal license plate. While officers were speaking with the father, the son emerged from the vehicle with an assault rifle and shot Paudert 11 times and Evans 14 times, killing them both. The father and son wounded additional officers before being shot and killed by police. This incident occurred 11 years ago. At the time, Bob Paudert, an officer and father of Brandon Paudert, said he was dismayed to learn that “not one chief or sheriff I spoke to afterward knew about sovereign citizens.” It was then he decided to travel the country to educate other officers about the dangers of sovereign citizens.
The job of educating law enforcement is not yet complete. Law enforcement officers are fortunate to have received some education as to the dangers posed by sovereign citizens, but those outside of law enforcement remain uneducated or under-educated as to the character and dangers of sovereigns.
Sovereigns pose additional problems for public officials and society at large. A sovereign Moorish national group sent a certified three-page letter to a Kansas county government office coated with diaminotoluene, a highly toxic substance.
A sovereign citizen was arrested in November 2020 at a MBTA bus station wearing a bullet-proof vest and a jacket labeled “security.” He had a loaded firearm, spare ammunition, and bladed weapons. An affidavit detailed his purchase of hundreds of items including firearms and chemicals that authorities determined could be used or combined to produce explosive devices. The most concerning purchases included four rifle-rated body armor plates and a concealed vest. Though no specific target was identified by the investigators, the items identified would make a mass casualty attack possible.
The fact that sovereigns consider the government illegitimate may contribute to the commission of other crimes. They are walled off from law enforcement and legal norms of society, and their members would be loath to report crimes to law enforcement. Consider the case of Andre Boynton and Anika George, two self-identified sovereigns, who were sentenced to life in prison for running a child sex ring. Five children were victimized in their scheme. Boynton was already serving a life sentence for kidnapping and raping a 14-year-old girl in 2008. He had been directing the efforts of the sex-ring from prison. Whether such crimes are facilitated by the group’s ideological resistance to government agencies and law enforcement deserves future study.
Researchers predict the nature of domestic terrorism will become increasingly diverse and fragmented with lone actors sometimes espousing contradictory ideologies. Such already appears to be the case for sovereigns whose ideology is being adopted by other groups. This includes some in the QAnon movement, a group primed to commit political violence. In the case of the Capitol attack, Pauline Bauer, facing charges for her involvement in the insurrection, rejected the jurisdiction of a federal judge and argued that only God has dominion over the law.
The latest ideological overlap seems to be between anti-maskers and sovereign citizens. Some individuals resisting anti-COVID measures are adopting sovereign citizen tactics and ideology in an attempt to justify their refusal to follow governmental recommendations or restrictions. Prominent among them is Ammon Bundy, a sovereign citizen and now anti-masker. In another case, Thomas Humphrey, a Minnesota sovereign citizen, recorded himself stealing the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson covid vaccines, telling authorities “it was poisoning people.”
A concerning crossover situation has recently involved a combination of QAnon, anti-masker, and sovereign citizen ideologies. A woman claiming to be “Queen of Canada” has gained a large following on the social media platform Telegram. She has recruited followers to bombard Canadian businesses with cease-and-desist letters. One of those letters recently appears to have been served to a business in California. What is more serious and most alarming about this new development is her call for the execution of health care workers and politicians behind government pandemic guidelines. In a video, she warned that “at the firing squad, the military firing squad, you will receive not one, but two bullets on your forehead for each child that you have harmed as a result of injecting this experimental vaccine.” This seems to be a variation of QAnon’s purported crusade to rescue children. In light of DHS’s recent warning regarding QAnon, specifically their willingness to move from digital soldiers to real world violence, these threats should be taken seriously.
The cases I have described show the dangers posed by sovereign citizens that go far beyond “paper terrorism.” The sovereign citizen does not believe in the legitimacy of the United States government. Sovereigns believe that they are above all local, state, and federal laws. They do not believe that law enforcement is legitimate or legally valid or that any law enforcement officer has authority over them. At traffic stops, sovereigns are angry, irritable, outraged, and indignant. They believe that all interference by the police in their lives is illegal. This, in the sovereign citizen’s mind, allows them to shoot to kill any and all law enforcement officers and others associated with the judicial system and government at large.
Most simply put, sovereigns are individuals who choose to live outside the law. They are outlaws in a clear sense of that word.
Convoluted, twisted, and thoroughly invalid logic has brought them to their self-serving beliefs. Their numbers are growing as their anti-government beliefs are being rapidly adopted by QAnon and other conspiracy groups. They should be recognized for the threat they pose, now and in the foreseeable future.