What do they believe?

Sovereign citizen extremists believe they are separate, or “sovereign,” from the United States even though they live here. Sovereigns believe they should decide which laws to obey and do not believe in paying taxes.

The movement is based in racism, attracting predominantly white supremacists and anti-Semites, primarily due to the early adherents’ belief a secret group of Jews were working behind the scenes to manipulate financial institutions and government.

There are many layers to the conspiracy theories of sovereign citizens, including hidden governments and a decades-old plot by the American government to enslave its people by selling them at birth to foreign countries.

Sovereign citizens think they don’t have to answer to any government authority. They use their beliefs to justify fraud and other non-violent crimes. Some sovereign citizen extremists turn to violence and commit murder, threaten public officials and destroy property as part of their anti-government, anti-tax beliefs. These extremists usually target members of the government, including judges, police officers and tax officials.

Acts of Violence

More often than not, sovereign citizens engage in “paper terrorism.” A simple traffic stop can end up in dozens of court filings containing hundreds of pages of legal-sounding nonsense.

In 2010, a sovereign citizen began a protracted legal battle over having to pay a dog-licensing fee. She filed ten sovereign documents over a two-month period and then declared victory when the exhausted prosecutor decided to drop the case. The battle was fought over a three-year dog license which cost only $20.

Tax cases are even worse. Sovereign filings in such legal battles can quickly exceed a thousand pages. While a normal criminal case docket might have 60 or 70 entries, many involving sovereigns have as many as 1,200. The courts are struggling to keep up, and judges, prosecutors and public defenders are being swamped.

When sovereign citizens become angry with government officials, they will file retaliatory, bogus property liens that may not be discovered by the victim until they attempt to sell their property. Another tactic is to file fake tax forms designed to ruin an enemy’s credit rating and cause them to be audited by the IRS. In the mid-1990s, a period when the sovereign movement was also on the rise, several states passed laws specifically aimed at these paper terrorism tactics.

There are cases of sovereign citizens becoming violent when faced with a perceived threat from law enforcement or government officials. In 1995 in Ohio, Michael Hill pulled a gun on an officer during a traffic stop. Hill was killed. In 1997, New Hampshire extremist Carl Drega shot and killed two officers and two civilians, and wounded another three officers before being killed himself. The same year in Idaho, brothers Doug and Craig Broderick were pulled over for failing to signal. They killed one officer and wounded another before being killed themselves in a violent gun battle. In December 2003, members of the Bixby family, who lived outside of Abbeville, South Carlina, killed two officers in a dispute over a small tract of land next to their home. In May 2010, Jerry and Joseph Kane, a father and son sovereign team, shot to death two West Memphis, Arkasas, police officers who had pulled them over in a routine traffic stop. Later that day, the Kanes were killed in a shootout with police in which two other officers were wounded.

Hate groups

National AllianceOath Keepers