Sovereign Citizens: Shining Example of Willful Ignorance




This category of litigant shares one other critical characteristic: they will only honour state, regulatory, contract, family, fiduciary, equitable, and criminal obligations if they feel like it. And typically, they don’t.
—Assoc. Chief Defender J.D. Rooke, Alberta, Canada, in the case Meads v. Meads

Sovereign citizens typically believe that there are two types of citizens: natural citizens and Fourteenth Amendment citizens. Based on idiosyncratic readings of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights they believe that natural citizens are citizens of the United States by virtue of having been born in one of the 50 states, not including the District of Columbia, and have ostensibly revoked their US federal citizenship and “contracts” (a term of art used exclusively by sovereign citizens in this context), and filed a “quiet title”. Actions to quiet title always relate to disputes about the ownership of real property and certain titled chattels, so the notion of quieting title to a human being is unknown to the law (or, well, it has been since 1865). Sovereign citizens believe that natural citizens are not subject to any United States federal law, including being subject to the jurisdiction of federal courts, but are subject to natural law and common law. By contrast, Fourteenth Amendment citizens are subject to federal and common law, but can become sovereign citizens by taking the same action as sovereign citizens.

In the United States, the sovereign citizen movement is closely related to the Posse Comitatus and freemen on the land movements, and there is substantial overlap between these movements and militia movements. In Canada, at least, there is an additional movement based around the concept of aboriginal heritage, which has been widely decried by Native Americans and justices alike.

Many sovereign citizens believe that only white men have rights because only the Constitution and the Bill of Rights apply, not any subsequent amendments.[1] Thus, they believe the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery) is unconstitutional and of no effect. They may also believe that the Nineteenth Amendment is unconstitutional, meaning women never gained suffrage and any election in which women vote is null and void.[2]

Though a few stateless people exist in the world (most in permanent diplomatic limbo due to lack of any citizenship), and in the United States a few have somewhat arcane legal status allowing them to be citizens of their place of residence (currently recognized only in American Samoa and Swains Island) but not the U.S. at large, the idea that one can renounce one’s citizenship in order to evade the laws of the land is unknown in all countries and U.S. courts have uniformly found this argument frivolous.


This claim is also associated with a few bizarre “debt elimination” scams which hold that if somebody files all the right paperwork with the government declaring themselves a sovereign citizen, they then have access to unlimited funds from the U.S. Treasury to pay off all their mortgages and other debts, similar to the theories of the redemption movement. The gist of the argument is that the Social Security Act established accounts at the U.S. Treasury for every American citizen and that declaring oneself a “sovereign citizen” gives one the legal right to issue “sight drafts” or “bills of exchange” which draw on your personal U.S. Treasury Account to pay off debts. This is not true, and those who have fallen for this scam have found the only person who gained access to any funds as a result was the scammer who charged them money to learn about this bizarre debt elimination method at his seminar.

The intellectual limitations for many members of the movement is indicated by the response of a Texas motorist to a December 4, 2008 traffic stop. “I am Texas Republican sovereignty. I do not recognize this as a legal traffic stop.”[3]

Political sociology

The sovereign citizen movement appears to be a direct descendant of the Posse Comitatus movement. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the movement may have as many as 300,000 members.[4]

Although populist anti-statism is associated with rural and small town whites in the American West, it has also appeared among urban African American squatters in the American South.[5] The Atlanta Journal Constitution has described them as “paper terrorists” for having the effrontery to squat in empty luxury homes in south DeKalb County.[6] DeKalb Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney John Melvin expressed class outrage when he commented that, “It’s amazing that these groups of citizens who like to proclaim they’re Robin Hood only choose million-dollar homes. Shocking.” Presumably they should do their squatting in mobile homes or hovels?[7]

These people’s willingness to act on, rather than merely propound, their ideas, together with the selection of valuable properties for squatting, makes the movement resemble the “social banditry” that erupted in the past in predominantly peasant societies presenting extreme economic inequality. This is egalitarian redistribution of wealth tricked up in the familiar, traditional language that politically legitimizes action. That it is occurring in an advanced industrial society, in the alienating suburbs of Atlanta, is novel. Great job, America.

Sovereign hypocrites

The problem with the sovereign citizen movement stems from its hypocritical stance that relies upon a very flawed understanding of how the law and citizenship within state societies work. In their case, rather than wholly obeying the law, sovereign citizens like to cherry pick the parts that they want to follow while simultaneously arguing that they’re exempt from being governed.

By using documents of government law, whether local or federal, such as the United States Constitution, and using any part of it as a justification for being exempt from being governed, they’re in fact doing the opposite: they acknowledge the Constitution is a contract with validity.

So whenever a sovereign citizen flings out the Constitution as a means to justify not being citizens, they’re in fact acknowledging that they actually are citizens. Talk about a paradox.

If their misunderstanding of how citizenship within a state society works isn’t enough, many sovereign citizens still receive and redeem government checks as well as other forms of federal financial aid. In short: money that’s provided through taxes taken from other people which the sovereign citizens are opposed to. This is tacit admission (even if unintentional) that they are still subject to the government’s authority and don’t truly reject it.[8]

Also, the term “sovereign citizen” itself hilariously reflects the oxymoron logic of the sovereign citizen movement. A quick look at the definition of the two words will show that it’s impossible to be both sovereign (self-governing) and a citizen (governed). Many in the movement realize this and call themselves “sovereign individuals” or mention their “sovereign rights” instead. However, they still don’t wholly reject the law and government authority enough. Thus they are not genuinely worthy of that title.

On a more practical level, many sovereign citizens are direct and willing beneficiaries of government largess. Ammon Bundy, the leader of an anti-government militia’s take-over of a wildlife refuge, took out a $530,000 loan from the federal government in 2010.[9] Ammon’s father, Cliven Bundy almost certainly benefited from federally subsidized programs; like the $26.5 million annually given to ranchers for drought relief or the $22 million spent annually clearing predators from the federally owned grazing land that Bundy illegally used.[10]

External links