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5 common crimes committed by sovereign citizens

Law enforcement must understand the sovereign citizen movement, and be able to identify specific components that make up the movement, in order to protect themselves.


In this July 2, 2010 photo, two vehicles with no registered license plates are parked outside an apartment complex in Columbus, Ohio. James T. McBride, a member of the Sovereign Citizens movement, owns the vehicles and claims he doesn’t have to register them because the U.S. government has no authority over citizens.

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

By Chris Meyer, Police1 Contributor

In a study conducted by The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) in 2014, law enforcement agencies identified the sovereign citizen movement as the greatest threat to their communities. To put it in perspective, the same study in 2006 identified Islamic extremists as the greatest threat.

What is a sovereign citizen?

Sovereign citizens believe that federal, state, and local governments operate illegally. Additionally, some sovereign citizens believe federal and state officials have no real authority and will only recognize the local sheriff’s department as the only legitimate government official. The actions of sovereign citizens, to “fix the system” range from quirky-but-legal to severe crimes. According to the FBI, when sovereign citizens feel their ideals are challenged they can escalate to violence quickly. Since 2000, lone-offender sovereign citizen extremists have killed six law enforcement officers.

Law enforcement must understand the sovereign citizen movement and be able to identify indicators to protect themselves from the group’s threatening tactics. Most of these crimes are based on the Redemption Theory.

What is the Redemption Theory and a strawman birth certificate?

The Redemption Theory says that when the U.S. dollar was taken off the gold standard, the government started using its citizens as collateral. Sovereign citizens believe that social security numbers, birth certificates, even zip codes are part of a system that assigns a collateral value to every citizen.

At the center of the theory is the idea that U.S. citizens have two identities. One identity is a legal entity known as a strawman, created by a birth certificate—thus strawman birth certificate. The second identity is you as a physical person. The theory claims that when you reject your strawman identity, your physical person is no longer liable for the strawman’s debts.

Sovereign citizens believe a secret bank account exists at the United States Department of the Treasury. They exploit this belief by filing fraudulent financial documents, charging their debt to the Treasury Department and committing additional mortgage, credit card, tax, and loan fraud.

It’s common for sovereign citizens to continue their schemes from behind bars and learn new tactics from inmates and spread their ideology within prison walls which make the schemes increasingly clever and difficult to identify.

The most common fraud crimes of sovereign citizens

1. Income tax evasion

A commonly described “benefit” of sovereignty is the nonessential need to pay federal or state taxes. According to the Redemption Theory, a sovereign citizen is not responsible for tax debts because they denounced the identity assigned to them by their so-called strawman birth certificate. Thus, taxes are the responsibility of the strawman and not the sovereign citizen.

And while income tax evasion itself may not directly endanger the safety of our communities, bringing the criminals to justice can lead to dangerous situations. One such instance occurred when Elaine and Edward Brown refused to show up in court for income tax evasion and stockpiled weapons while barricading themselves inside their home.

2. The redemption scheme

Proponents of this scheme claim that the U.S. government control bank accounts—often referred to as “U.S. Treasury Direct Accounts” — for all U.S. citizens. Sovereign citizens claim these accounts can be accessed by submitting paperwork with state and federal authorities.

This scheme predominately uses fraudulent financial documents that appear to be legitimate. These documents are frequently referred to as “bills of exchange,” “promissory bonds,” “indemnity bonds,” “offset bonds,” or “sight drafts.” Other official documents frequently used include IRS forms 1099, 1099-OID, and 8300.

Although it’s most common for sovereign citizens to propagate their schemes, other scammers may only be looking for a quick profit. The redemption scheme promises its victims the ability to pay down their debts—mortgages, credit cards, student loans, and more, using government funds. When the process fails, the scammer blames the victim for missing a deadline or filing the wrong forms.

3. Selling fraudulent documents

Sovereign citizens commit financial crimes with the assistance of a wide range of fake documents. They forge financial documents to establish lines of credit, create fake businesses, and more.

According to the FBI, sovereign citizens forge and sell drivers’ licenses, passports, diplomatic identification, vehicle registrations, concealed firearms permits, law enforcement credentials, and insurance forms. In Kansas City, sovereign citizens were convicted of forging diplomatic immunity cards and selling them for up to $2000.

The number of fraudulent documents associated with sovereign citizens can be an investigative challenge, too. At traffic stops, law enforcement officers need to be aware of fraudulent documentation like birth certificates, drivers’ licenses or vehicle tags. When asked to provide a name, it’s common for a sovereign citizen to respond that they don’t have a name or they may identify themselves as “the representative of…(their legal name).” If you do receive a name, it may be a sovereign name, compounded with “El” or “Bey” and intended to denounce their association with the name provided them by a government entity.

Be sure to document all known aliases.

4. Financial fraud schemes

Sovereign citizens commit many types of fraud—mail, bank, insurance, mortgage, and wire fraud – and try to justify their actions through their beliefs.

Just a few months ago, a man was convicted of attempting to make the government of Denver pay his personal debts.

In 2009, two men involved in the sovereign-citizen movement in Las Vegas, Nevada were arrested and charged with laundering $1.3 million for undercover FBI agents posing as businessmen.

In 2010, two sovereign citizens in Sacramento, California were convicted of running a fraudulent insurance scheme. They were operating a company completely outside of state insurance regulatory authorities. The men sold “lifetime memberships” to customers and promised to pay any accident claims against members. The company collected millions of dollars, but paid only small auto insurance claims and ignored large ones.

5. Intimidation and obstruction of law enforcement

Sovereign citizens use their fraudulent methods to target officers. They often try to intimidate law enforcement officers and prevent them from fulfilling their duty.

Sovereign citizens use counterfeit entities to make themselves appear to be members of the Constitution Rangers, Republic of Texas Rangers, U.S. Marshals, Civil Rights Task Force, and more. Sovereigns who purport to represent such agencies often have identification cards, badges, and sometimes even accessories such as police raid jackets.

Using these props, sovereign citizens have attempted to get past courtroom security, issue warrants and indictments, extricate themselves from encounters with police, and even to intimidate or “interrogate” others.

Additionally, sovereign citizens may request an oath of office, proof of jurisdiction, film interactions with officers, and more. Sovereign citizens can also use legitimate federal documents, such as suspicious activity reports to target law enforcement officers’ reputations.

The belief that strawman birth certificates are used to create separate legal entities for every U.S. citizen serves as a gateway for a multitude of crimes. All levels of government, including law enforcement officers, are prime targets for sovereign citizens. If you educate yourself and stay aware of the warning signs, you can spot these schemes and protect yourself and your community.