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What cops need to know about sovereign citizen encounters

The threat to officer safety posed by sovereign citizens is well known. Here’s how to be safe and professional during an encounter


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

Law enforcement officers across the country are experiencing a growing number of contacts with sovereign citizens, individuals and groups who possess a strong anti-government ideology.

Because they believe the government, its representatives, laws and policies are illegitimate, sovereign citizens regularly find themselves in conflict with the law. Although it’s difficult to accurately access their numbers, it is safe to say that since 2000, their numbers and the violent incidents associated with them have increased.

Here, I’ll provide you with some investigative tips and suggestions should you encounter a sovereign citizen, but, I’d be remiss if I did not take a moment to emphasize that whether you’re dealing with a novice or a hardliner sovereign citizen, the prospect of violent action and threats to officer safety should never be taken for granted.

1. Proceed with caution

The threat to officer safety posed by sovereign citizens is well known. One must look no further than the tragic deaths of Sergeant Brandon Paudert and Officer Bill Evans of the West Memphis Police Department in order to understand the risk of spontaneous violence from self-proclaimed sovereign citizens. I strongly suggest to any officer encountering a suspected sovereign citizen to proceed with extreme caution, employing all necessary tactical officer safety precautions.

One of the first things to recognize is that a sovereign citizen is likely to be argumentative with police authorities. They may proclaim themselves as sovereign citizens right from the beginning or they may simply challenge your right or authority to stop/detain them.

They may question your authority or where you derive your jurisdiction and inform you that they do not believe in the United States Constitution or any other “illegitimate” government documents from which police powers are derived.

2. Stay on your game

Don’t get pulled into a battle of wits based upon sovereign citizen rhetoric. Many of them speak as if they are reading from a script. Often, their mantra is intended simply to throw you off your game. Too often our egos kick in whenever our authority is challenged and we end up arrogantly contributing to the escalation of an argument rather than guiding its de-escalation.

I encourage you to be knowledgeable about the Constitution, the laws of your state and your enforcement options. With sovereign citizens, I suggest you try to de-escalate any situation when you have the opportunity. Also, recognize that the sovereign citizen may attempt to videotape your encounter.

3. Remain calm and professional

Don’t engage in an argument. Explain your purpose or intentions as you would in any other circumstance. The fact that you are being challenged does not change your training or what lawful enforcement actions are available to you.

On YouTube and other internet sites, there are some great examples of officer/sovereign encounters where officers remain professional and task oriented despite being confronted and challenged.

I also encourage you to take a moment and watch this brief safety video offered by West Memphis Police Chief Bob Paudert, father of Sergeant Brandon Paudert, regarding the dangers of sovereign citizens:

4. Beware of fraudulent documents

Sovereign citizens can be an investigative challenge. Much of their personal identification information, such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses or vehicle tags are fraudulent documents. When asked to provide a name, they may respond that they don’t have a name.

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.

5. Gather intelligence

Another challenge faced by investigators is the fact that the sovereign citizen movement is not an organized civil or criminal enterprise. It’s a fractured series of loosely affiliated individuals who adhere to anti-government ideologies.

This lack of organization does little to help investigators to get a foothold. However, the more we are able to learn about these unique individuals, the better armed we will be for future encounters and successful prosecutions. Despite the challenges posed by sovereign citizens, intelligence gathering will be our most valuable investigative tool. Therefore, officers should conduct thorough background checks based upon the information he or she is able to gather.

Obviously, we will look at their criminal records but go beyond that. Make use of every database you can think of, including social media, to learn as much as you can. Consider the areas they frequent, the vehicles they drive, the people they associate with, their interests, hobbies, family, their parole or probationary status, employment or social service benefits status, prior drug/alcohol abuse, scars, marks, tattoos and possible weapons in the home.

As much as they proclaim their disdain for the government, they are known to take full advantage of all the government is willing to give them. You’ll see below that as much as they admonish our justice system, they are happy to try to use it against us.

6. Interview and debrief

Upon arrest, make it a point to talk to these individuals. I don’t mean interrogate them; I mean interview and debrief them. Attempt to learn as much as you can about them.

I like to begin with an information sheet. This is a form that gathers general but pertinent information about them. Not only name, birth date., address, phone number and physical description, but also where they work, who they reside with, their marital status, children, emergency contact information and who they might stay with in the event of an emergency.

This seems like a standard part of arrestee processing, but what it actually does is gathering intelligence while establishing a dialogue that helps them acquire a level of comfort with being questioned.

Proceed by asking curious questions about their sovereign status. Your posture should be one of understanding rather than confrontation. In a non-arrest situation, I advise officers to complete and submit FI reports detailing as much information as possible.

Informants, family, friends or other associates also have relevance with regard to sovereigns. These associations may help you determine, locations, hideouts, vehicles, weapons caches or other useful information toward building a case.

Learn more about sovereign citizens
Read the most recent Police1 news and expert analysis about sovereign citizens and law enforcement

7. Share information

Communicate all the information you gathered with specialized units within your department or agency. Some departments have an intelligence unit which gathers and records as much information on sovereign citizens in as possible. Communicate with neighboring jurisdictions, state and federal authorities, prosecutors and even your local attorney general’s office.

One reason to share this information is the FBI has recently deemed sovereign citizens paper terrorists.

Sovereign citizens have been known to inundate the courts with false or fraudulent documents intended to file lawsuits against law enforcement and other judicial or government officials. Sovereigns may also attempt to place a lien against your personal property.

Only a handful of states have laws in place to protect public officials from such claims and allow law enforcement to criminally charge sovereigns for such false filings. Therefore, sharing all the information you gather will help to keep everyone informed should you be targeted.

8. Conduct surveillance and search warrants

Conducting surveillance is another beneficial investigative effort. Not only might you want to target them visually but, depending on the circumstances and laws within your state, you may want to consider applying a GPS unit on a target vehicle or installing pole cameras in known sovereign territory.

Surveillance will not only serve the purpose of gathering intelligence but also provides vital officer safety information should a search warrant execution be required.

Conduct search warrants whenever probable cause exists. Obviously, an officer will document the probable cause contributing to the case but, if possible, include intelligence/background information on known or suspected sovereigns and their anti-government ideologies.

Include items to search for such as anti-government papers, pamphlets, books, false documents and weapons.

Their computers and electronic data storage devices can contain information on social media and other websites visited. Hard drives can be of tremendous evidentiary value.

9. Use tact, patience and persistence

Don’t get caught up in the rhetoric and remain task oriented. Work hard to learn as much as you can about sovereigns through traditional and non-traditional methods and share what you’ve learned.

Ask questions and seek the advice of those investigators who have had frequent contact with sovereigns.

10. Above all, stay safe

Be creative, be thorough, but most of all when it comes to sovereign citizens, be safe.

This article, originally published March 2013, has been updated.

Detective Morris Greenberg serves as a proud member of the Baltimore County Police in Baltimore, Maryland. Most of his career has been spent conducting criminal investigation in specialized units including Robbery, Violent Crimes and Homicide. He has also served on the department’s Hostage Negotiation Team. Detective Greenberg possesses a Master’s Degree from the Johns Hopkins University, Division of Public Safety Leadership and teaches within the Criminal Justice Programs at two local colleges.

Contact Moe Greenberg.