Sovereign citizens, though disparate and disorganized, generally all operate under the theory that for one reason or another, the U.S. government and its court system is illegitimate. In practice, this usually involves avoiding taxes or driving without a driver's license or license plates.
The problems begin when sovereign citizens are confronted with law enforcement officials, typically at a traffic stop. Once they have been arrested, sovereign citizens will often file false liens or frivolous lawsuits against the officers and other public officials -- known as "paper terrorism" -- which can ruin their credit or tie them up in costly legal battles.
And though the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are about 100,000 sovereign citizens across the country, Georgia's legislature is one of the first to try to crack down on the movement.
House Bill 997, introduced by state Rep. B.J. Pak (R) and unanimously passed out of committee last week, makes it a separate crime for anyone "to knowingly file a false lien or encumbrance in a public record or private record" against a public official or employee "on account of the performance of such public officer or public employee's official duties."
If passed, the law would make filing false liens punishable by 1-10 years of imprisonment, a fine up to $10,000, or both.
Pak told TPM that the sovereign citizens have been "kind of a building nuisance" in Georgia, to the point where "several of the local police officers and judges have been harassed." This law, Pak says, would give clerks who file the liens the "discretion to deny filing of certain liens that are patently fraudulent." At this point, "they don't have the discretion to say no."
In the past year, he said, there have been around five known cases of sovereign citizens filing false liens against officials, though he added that there might be others, as the sovereigns obviously don't inform the people whom they are filing the liens against. Instead, people tend to find out when they check their credit, or are trying to sell their homes.
Police Chief Tim Shaw in Temple, Georgia, is embroiled in his own legal battle with a sovereign citizen who allegedly threatened him after a traffic stop.
Shaw told TPM that the harassment began after the sovereign citizen was issued a citation for not wearing a seatbelt. At the arraignment, the sovereign said he was immune from the law, and shortly after "started harassing me, he was claiming police brutality," Shaw said.
Shaw continued that the man tried "tried to extort $800k from me, and I obviously didn't have that money to give him." Shaw didn't respond, and was sent a second demand for a payment of $880k. A third request shortly after "spelled out different remedies they could do to me to get me to pay the money," Shaw said, and included "in the envelope MapQuest driving directions from his residence to my residence, from his residence to my mother and father's residence down in Florida."
The court granted a protective order for Shaw, so that the sovereign "is not allowed to file any type of encumbrances or frivolous liens against me, short of going through my attorney." But, Shaw says, in most cases officers aren't given that kind of protection "because most of [the sovereign citizens] aren't as dumb as he was" and don't send an "implied threat."
Shaw said that Pak's legislation would help with this problem, and give sovereign citizens "one less thing for them to have in their toolbox."
Georgia had a much bigger encounter with sovereign citizens in March of last year, when twelve of them were indicted on various charges related to an alleged racketeering scheme to take over millions of dollars in properties in the northern part of the state. The twelve -- who were also accused of squatting in one of the homes -- allegedly broke into unoccupied houses, signed and notarized the deeds for themselves, filed the deeds with the courts, then filed liens and lawsuits against law enforcement officials, prosecutors and judges who tried to kick them out.
Though in cases like these, the damage is mostly financial, at other times sovereign citizens pose a more sinister threat. Shaw, who got a taste of this, told TPM that "it's not always a volatile encounter. But the potential for the volatility is there."
And both Pak and Shaw pointed to the case of Jerry and Joseph Kane of West Memphis Arkansas, who killed two police officers after they were pulled over for a routine traffic stop. The Kanes were killed in a subsequent shootout with other police officers.
In another case in Alaska, Schaeffer Cox and his associates have been accused of plotting to kidnap and kill public officials.
Incidents like these, to a large degree, explain why sovereign citizens are now on the FBI's radar. Indeed, the Homeland Security Department and National Counterterrorism Center have ranked sovereign citizens high on the list of growing threats, alongside Islamic terrorists and white supremacists, the Los Angeles Times reports.
"We are focusing our efforts because of the threat of violence," Stuart R. McArthur, a deputy assistant director in the FBI's Counterterrorism Division, told the Times.
Photo from Scott Rothstein / Shutterstock.