Sovereign Citizens Are a Sometimes Violent Fringe Group Rejecting All Government

Embracing God as the only authority, they clog the courts with endless protests, writes Winston Ross.

Sami Sarkis/Getty

His name is Craig Douglas Fleshman, though he won’t answer to that, just as he no longer carries a driver’s license or pays taxes. Pastor Paul Revere doesn’t recognize the authority of the State of Oregon, the United States of America, or anyone else that presumes to have some command over him. He answers only to God.

“We believe there’s only one sovereign,” Revere told The Daily Beast. “And it isn’t us. Jesus said to render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render to God that which is God’s.”

Revere and his “Embassy of Heaven” church in the foothills of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains are more seasoned examples of a growing movement of Americans who wish to wipe their hands of their government—not by secession, via those petitions filed in several states since President Obama’s reelection—but by declaring the whole system null and void.

They are “sovereign citizens,” inspired by any number of complicated and cockamamie theories that all draw the same conclusion: we are not subject to your “laws.” And they are becoming an increasing headache for cops, public defenders, prosecutors, bailiffs, and judges all over the U.S., because when they inevitably land in court for driving without a license or failing to pay taxes, they clog up the system with reams of nonsensical paperwork. Their obfuscatory filings are so inundating that harried prosecutors often drop the charges against them—a victory for the sovereigns’ otherwise quixotic cause.

Sometimes the battles get bloody long before they see a courtroom, too. In 2010, 16-year-old sovereign Joseph Kane gunned down two police officers in West Memphis, Ark., after a routine traffic stop. The boy killed the officers with an AK-47 after his dad, 45-year-old sovereign Jerry Kane, got into a scuffle with one of the cops attempting to frisk him. Both Kanes were killed later that day in a shootout with police. Since 2000, “lone-offender sovereign-citizen extremists have killed six law enforcement officers,” according to the FBI.

Revere doesn’t advocate such violence, but his website, where he explains that “grownups have been tricked into obeying the laws of humbugs, rather than the laws of God,” is chock-full of admonitions about why and how best to disobey such humbugs, even as it will surely land his followers in jail.

“If you have given your allegiance to Jesus Christ, and you live your beliefs, you will go to jail,” he writes. “It is inevitable because the world will hate you.”

Revere knows a thing or two about this. After founding his church in 1987, the former computer systems analyst began issuing “Kingdom of Heaven” identity documents, including passports, driver’s licenses, and license plates, and stopped paying property taxes. Sheriff’s deputies raided the church’s 34-acre property in Stayton, Ore., in 1997, for nonpayment of taxes, and took all of his land. Now Revere and an undisclosed number of followers lives off the grid and with permission on someone else’s property. He still drives, he tells The Daily Beast, but as infrequently as possible. And though he hasn’t actually been to jail in 15 years—he was arrested during the tax case for refusing to leave the property—he continues to defy the government’s authority. In October, insurance regulators in Minnesota ordered Revere to stop selling people “church-based insurance,” which “deliberately exploited and manipulated the trust of Minnesotans, specifically targeting members of a faith-based community.”

That case began after one of Revere’s followers in Boyd, Minn., was cited for not having car insurance, according to a story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. What she did have was a “Certificate of Self-Insurance,” issued by Revere’s church, identifying her as a member of Mutual Assurance and part of a “pool of self-insured ministries.”

Revere tells The Daily Beast he never charged anyone for issuing such certificates, never claimed to be selling insurance and has since tweaked the wording of his web site to make that clear. But such attempts to evade government taxes and fees lie at the heart of sovereign citizen logic, and it’s why in a struggling economy the message is so appealing, said Mark Potok, spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks radical movements across the country.

“Sovereign citizens are clearly the most rapidly growing part of a radical right that has been growing explosively over the last three years,” Potok said. “Still, it’s an incredibly difficult movement to measure.”

That’s because sovereigns are so deliberately loosely organized. They may gather and share information about how to defeat the courts, but many don’t affiliate with any specific group, like Revere’s. They simply fight their own battles in their own courts in their own way. Potok’s organization figures as many as 300,000 in the U.S., based on IRS estimates of tax protestors and the percentage of such tax protestors that in court documents have revealed themselves to be sovereigns.

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The most prevailing sovereign theory is this, Potok explained: The U.S. Government effectively dissolved, in either the Civil War or 1933, when it went off the gold standard. And because of that, “you don’t have to pay your taxes, pay off your house, you don’t really owe anybody anything, and by the way if you file the right documents, you can get as much as $20 million from the federal government.”

That’s right, the government actually owes you money. See, when it went off the gold standard, in order to maintain this false sense of legitimacy, the illuminati turned us all into “straw men.” Those capital letters on our birth certificates are our straw man names, and our Social Security numbers are just a way to keep track of us. The government then convinced some suckers in China and other countries to fork over their hard-earned Yuan for a stake in Americans’ future earning potential, anywhere from $600,000 to $20 million, per person. The so-called U.S. Government has been cashing in on you since the day you were born, somehow. And all you have to do to collect is file the right paperwork—and in the meantime, refuse to acknowledge the straw man.

“It’s very likely to continue to grow,” Potok said. “Specifically because it is a movement that promises something for nothing, at a time of real financial hardship.”

Between 2011 and earlier this year, Miami public defender Josh Cooley represented one of two brothers who are sovereigns. One, who’s actually an employee of the Transportation Security Administration, somehow got arrested in 2011 for grand theft, and at his first appearance, the man’s brother showed up, trying to help.

“He starts trying to give the judge papers, but he refuses to address her as ‘judge,’” Cooley told The Daily Beast. “He calls her ‘administrator.’”

Before long, the judge asked the bailiff to remove him, Cooley said. That led to a felony disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charge, which was eventually reduced to a misdemeanor, but the brother wound up serving nearly a year in jail—for contempt of court. The first brother, the TSA employee, “he’s been in jail a full year on his very first charge,” Cooley said. “This is a charge that would typically be resolved with a diversionary program.”

Paul Frasier is prosecutor in Coos County, Ore., and he’s been dealing with sovereign citizens for decades, since he worked in the state’s eastern region. Usually they cross his path after driving without a license, or some other minor offense. Instead of paying the minor fine and moving on (that would be accepting the straw man,) they battle it out in court. In recent years, the sovereigns have gotten worse, Frasier said. One couple from Coquille, Ronald and Dorothea Joling, has actually tried suing the D.A. twice, once in federal court and now in a state bankruptcy filing that is thousands of pages long and includes phrases like “in rem, et. al. libertas upon Motion to Show Cause Re: Plundering and Privateering, whereby Ronald Dean and Dorothea Joan, we are I am, of the united states, in rem, et. al. libertas has been plundered, and despoiled from the united states, and maintained on the vessel, foreign state known as Coos County, a franchise of the United States Incorporated within the vessel, foreign state known as Oregon, a Franchise of the United States Incorporated.”

Frasier isn’t sure what the Jolings want. (They did not return a phone call from The Daily Beast.)

“They wanted some kind of sweat equity deed or in lieu of that 27,000 ounces of pure silver,” he said. “It was really hard for me to understand what they’re asking.”

Mostly, the prosecutor said, sovereigns are “a pain in the butt,” filing “humongous motions” often to get the case moved to “admiralty court,” which is based on another of their odd theories: because the flags in the courtroom have a gold fringe on them, they’re “battle flags,” which means the case should be heard by a military tribunal in admiralty court.

“It’s really strange logic,” Frasier said.