At this very moment, people across America are doing their taxes and discovering they owe more money than they have. And the majority of those people are reacting to the news in a normal fashion, which is to say, they’re setting up a payment plan, begging a relative or ordering a beer they can’t afford, and putting the bill off until next year.
But a small portion are discovering an ideology that claims their tax bill is entirely invalid because IRS correspondence is written in all capital letters, which means it’s addressed to a legal entity which shares your name but is not you, and in fact, the government owes you money—at least $630,000.
This is “sovereign citizen” logic, as heady, cheap, and rotten as a box of wine left out in the sun.
I first encountered sovereign citizen when I was a kid. We’d landed in Black Forest, Colorado, which today has been gentrified into a nice little bedroom community for Colorado Springs. Back then, it still housed pockets of fringier folks.
Our neighbors across the way looked normal—they lived in a well-maintained ranch house with an aboveground hot tub that I coveted desperately and a neat little stable, housing a few healthy, glossy horses. It was all perfectly benign until they casually dropped into conversation that the horses were for transport when the revolution came.
The neighbors to the west were either a very strangely configured family or a cult. Sometimes, when we passed the turnoff to their compound, mom would sigh, “I just hope they’re not the type to blow themselves up like that one cult in Texas.”
To be fair, they probably thought the same thing about us. We were living in a failed church, a loosely connected collection of prefab buildings that some lunatics had plopped into the woods in the late 1960s with the intent of remaking Catholicism or something. No one really knew the details. The chapel had blue shag carpet.
Dad had moved us out there full of promise. We were going to take the failed church and remake it in our image, renovate it into something glorious.
“Just look at this land,” he said. “This is the land for a forever home.”
Unfortunately, my family was to construction as the U.S. is to nation building, which is to say fucking awesome at destruction and not so great at rebuilding.
We tore down staircases and cut open the roof. We dug up the floor and punched out the windows. And then we ran out of money.
Dad hung tarps and dropcloths over the holes and went quiet and hunched when we complained about the wet and the dirt.
Then one day, he strutted into the house and ordered us to unpack his truckbed, which was packed with all of the supplies we so desperately needed—drywall and lumber, tile and great plastic buckets of paint.
“Where did it come from?” I asked, my voice hushed in awe as if beholding a cave full of treasure.
“Well, you see, they told me about this law,” dad started. He’d been talking to our neighbors apparently and they’d opened his eyes to natural rights and public land and personhood and told him about a Congressional act of 1933 and the gold standard and maritime law, which was particularly confusing because we lived in landlocked Colorado.
Years later, I would recognize his spiel as sovereign citizen rhetoric and sift through it to the details. Dad “found” the materials “left over” on a construction site that was on “public” land and as a “natural” citizen, it was his “legal” right to take it.
It didn’t make sense, what he was saying, but I nodded along because I wanted it to be true.
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there are about 300,000 Americans who define themselves as sovereign citizens, of which 100,000 are hardcore and 200,000 are more casual, hobbyist types. The most radical are definitely dangerous. In February, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI circulated a report to law enforcement about the growing threat of domestic terrorism, citing 24 violent attacks across the country by sovereign citizen-afflicted extremists since 2010, including the shooting deaths of two cops in 2010 and two sheriff’s deputies in 2012.
It should be noted that while I am using the term “sovereign citizen” to represent the entire movement—like the government and independent watchdog organizations do—sovereign citizens do not consider themselves to be a singular group. They’re also known as living souls, natural persons, the Freemen, the Moorish Nation, freemen-on-the-land, Freemen of Free Freedom. (I made that last one up.) And they do have differences. Some splinter groups are more gun-happy than others. Some are very racist and anti-Semitic, others less so. Some groups are religious but most aren’t.
They do share a common ancestor, a group of elderly Hitler-lovers in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1960s who called themselves the Posse Comitatus. The Posse was notable for three reasons:
The first is that one of the founders, Henry Lamont Beach, was a retired dry cleaner. He spent his life tending stained clothes and getting yelled at by grumpy customers. It’s not exactly the circle of hell a self-proclaimed Nazi sympathizer deserved, but it’s a start.
Second, the Posse Comitatus pioneered a kind of paperwork warfare unlike anything ever seen before—they were the early kings of frivolous lawsuits, obsessed with clogging the legal system with constant false liens, letters of credit, and property claims.
Third, this group of frustrated, ranting old men somehow birthed an ideological movement that continues to grow and evolve. Their ideological decedents don’t always agree on the details but the general gist of their worldview is that the laws that govern us have all been invalid from the moment Lincoln declared martial law during the Civil War. Or when the 14th Amendment was ratified. Or when the government abandoned the gold standard in the 1930s.
Whenever it was, the true government was replaced by a sham operation, which uses maritime law, corporate personhood, and the Uniform Commercial Code to justify using U.S. citizens as collateral to the Federal Reserve.
In order to do so, the federal government has to create a corporate shell legal person for each natural man—this separate entity, sovereign citizens believe, is called a strawman. The strawman is created by a birth certificate—a receipt for the Federal Reserve, according to the sovereigns—in which the strawman is given a name that will be used to track this legal person throughout the lifetime of the natural person, but remains wholly separate from the natural person.
Confused? Let this video clear it up. Fair warning: The video opens with a minute and 46 seconds of the red pill scene from The Matrix:
Sovereign citizens are more concerned with pedantic semantics than your most passive aggressive ex. They have to be—they believe they can only be governed through consent, and consent can be given through something as seemingly innocuous as using a ZIP code or responding to a name written in all CAPS.
In sovereign citizen lore, if your name is John Smith and you receive a letter, or bill, addressed to JOHN SMITH, you should ignore it, because that’s clearly meant for your strawman. Names with titles like Mr. John Smith or Dr. John Smith are also addressed to the strawman. Responding as the actual person to mail addressed to the strawman requires punctuation gymnastics that would make E.E. Cummings blush—John Smith might be stylized as John:Smith. Anti-tax sovereign batshit activist David Wynn Miller spells his natural name as :David-Wynn: Miller. (Check out the punctuation on his site in general. It’s amazing.) Michigan militia leader and self-declared sovereign citizen Mark Koernke writes his name “Mark Gregory,, Koernke” (PDF).
Legal documents like tax bills, court notices, driver’s licenses, and property deeds are all addressed to the strawman. The actual human person is exempt from anything related to the strawman, like a tax bill. The IRS is hip to this practice—their document refuting sovereign citizen arguments reads like an extended eye roll (PDF). The document opens with:
The Internal Revenue Service (Service) is aware that some taxpayers are claiming that they are not subject to federal income tax, or that their income is excluded from taxation, because: 1) the taxpayers have declared that they have rejected or renounced United States citizenship because the taxpayers are citizens exclusively of a State (sometimes characterized as a “natural-born citizen” of a “sovereign state”); or 2) the taxpayers claim they are not persons as identified by the Internal Revenue Code.
These claims are dismissed by Page 2:
Any argument that a taxpayer’s income is excluded from taxation because: 1) the taxpayer has rejected or renounced United States citizenship because the taxpayer is a citizen exclusively of a State (sometime characterized as a “natural-born citizen” of a “sovereign state”); or 2) the taxpayer is not a person as defined by the Internal Revenue Code and is, therefore, not subject to federal tax, has no merit and is frivolous.
The next eight pages detail exactly how, and with which form, the IRS will come after any attempt to use any of said arguments, including an immediate $5,000 fine for a frivolous return, on top of whatever else they determine you owe.
Many sovereign citizens skip filing returns altogether but occasionally, they get in trouble for filing far too many. My personal favorite of these cases includes former child star-turned-orthodontist Glenn Unger, sentenced in 2013 to eight years for filing over $36 million worth of false returns. My dad should have really upped his game—trucks full of construction supplies just seem so paltry by comparison.
Sovereign citizens who file these outlandish returns usually subscribe to something called the Redemption Movement, an idea pitched by Roger Elvick in the 1980s. Elvick espoused the belief that when the federal government grants a birth certificate, they create the strawman associated with the real human at the same moment—and also deposit $630,000 into the strawman’s account. The big, mean government and Federal Reserve draw on this cash without the citizen even knowing about it, but “enlightened” sovereigns can access the cash for themselves by filing sight drafts or obscure forms along with their return. Naturally, Elvick spent most of the 1990s in federal prison for filing over $1 million in fraudulent returns and sight drafts.
Why that specific number—$630,000—is deposited is not clear. After looking into Elvick’s work, that number just appears to be the preference of the supposed “secret Jewish cabal” that controls the world’s money. For what it’s worth, when Elvick was indicted a second time, the judge declared him mentally unfit. He was sent to a mental health care facility and treated for nine months before he was competent to stand trial.
I reached out to the IRS for more detail on their sovereign citizen. Spokesperson Ubon Mendie sent over a document called “The Truth About Frivolous Tax Arguments.” The 69-page report was released in February and appears to be an attempt at preemptively shutting down idiotic arguments—each section summarizes the argument they anticipate, why it’s wrong, and the court cases that back the IRS up. Sovereign ideas feature prominently.
The idea that one can claim sovereignty is dismissed early, with 18 court cases cited. The claim that a taxpayer is “not a ‘person’” is also thrown out in eight cases. The Redemption Movement is, of course, also dismissed. One section mentions the strawman idea specifically, stating it evolved from a “frivolous position under which a secret bank account (sometimes referred to as a “straw man” account) was supposedly created at the Treasury Department for each U.S. citizen that individuals could use to pay tax and non-tax debts and claim withholding credits. Those who put forth this theory often argue that the proper way to redeem or draw on the account is to use some form of made-up financial instrument.”
Made-up financial instrument? IRS burn. The attitude continues.
“Courts have characterized this theory as ‘implausible,’ ‘clearly nonsense,’ ‘convoluted,’ and ‘peculiar,’” the report says.
The marvel of sovereign reasoning is the belief that the entire system—the vast and interwoven institutional underpinnings that have been crafted to strip them of their freedom—can be defeated through their personal cleverness. For example, here’s a talking tree frog explaining the cheat codes for making the U.S. court system your bitch:
For the record, there are no proven instances of these arguments actually working. But there are many, many YouTube videos of people trying and failing hard. For example, check out this clip of a young man attempting to claim sovereignty. He’s first met with bemusement from a patient bailiff and then a Taser by an irritated one.
According to Police Magazine, this kid put the video online himself, certain the people would rise up with him. He has, so far, been met with only snickers from Police Magazine’s online commentators.
The tree frog legal advice video, by the way, was produced by Sovereign Filing Solutions, your one-stop shop for personal emancipation. They’ll sell you any product you need, from how-to guides to pseudo-legal red stamps. For $1,000, they claim they can get you out of your child support payments.
Sovereign Filing Solutions also offers phone consultations. Naturally, I signed up for a session. Unfortunately, they never called, no matter how often I tried to get them on the line. On their website, they note that they cannot be held legally liable for their advice. They also quote Gandhi (!) and note that they don’t condone violence.
Should Sovereign Filing Solutions never call me, I could become a self-certified lawyer. Sovereign “law school” Erwin Rommel School of Law sells “THE WHOLE ENCHILADA: Seven Complete Training Packages for ‘Lawyerless Litigators’” for $2,164 retail, $1,499 discount. The package includes The Art of War by Sun Tzu for $15, Erwin Rommel School of Law [Vol. 1], Son of Erwin Rommel [Vol. 2, 750 pages], and Blackstone Institute’s 1914 Law Course (“The complete original 1914 course of study for those preparing to practice law. Covers both Common Law and Statutory Law. Before the law became corrupted”).
That’s a lot of books to read, though, when Tools for Freedom will sell you a two-DVD “Complete Guide to Sovereignty.” While you’re on the site, you can also pick up a pamphlet called “How I Clobbered Every Bureaucratic Cash-Confiscatory Agency Known to Man” and anti-radiation tablets. The Aware Group offered a package to help you redeem your $630,000 strawman account for the low, low cost of $995 until the State of Carolina stepped in (PDF).
According to a particularly sassy judgment against a sovereign citizen in a Canadian court, these products are the point of the movement. Associate Chief Justice John D. Rooke defined the sovereign arguments as “Organized Pseudolegal Commercial Arguments” (OPCA) and declared that:
OPCA arguments are never sold to their customers as simple ideas, but instead are byzantine schemes, which more closely resemble the plot of a dark fantasy novel than anything else. Latin maxims and powerful sounding language are often used. Documents are often ornamented with many strange marking and seals. Litigants engage in peculiar, ritual‑like in court conduct. All these features appear necessary for gurus to market OPCA schemes to their often desperate, ill‑informed, mentally disturbed, or legally abusive customers. This is crucial to understand the non-substance of any OPCA concept or strategy. The story and process of a OPCA scheme is not intended to impress or convince the Courts, but rather to impress the guru’s customer.
The IRS’s report puts it more bluntly. In the section devoted to “untaxing” packages, they call out “Promoters who sell such tax evasion plans and supposedly teach individuals how to remove themselves from the federal tax system rely on many of the above-described frivolous arguments.” Then they describe—with brutal efficiency—the failed court cases of 14 promoters, their judgments a paper trail of trophies meant to ward off anyone stupid enough to believe sovereign citizen arguments.
As an adult, I don’t know how I could have ever been that stupid myself, how I could have imagined that it might be fine to take those “public” construction supplies. But when my dad brought them home, he looked hopeful for once. All of the stress that had been gathering in tightness around his eyes washed away in a flood of pseudo-legal gibberish and a new way out of the disappointing, leaking mess we’d made of our lives.
It was, of course, all bullshit. The cops showed up at our hovel a few weeks later. And we deserved what we got, painted into a corner by our own arrogance. But there is something still so sad about it—these crackpot theories that preach that the system is escapable, defeated by self-determination and know-how and pluck, only to dissolve into just a colorful con—this particular Matrix just a story to sell some red pills.