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Police teach tactics for handling 'sovereign citizens'

The FBI classifies such people, who refuse to recognize government authority in virtually any form, as part of a domestic terrorist movement.

April 05, 2013|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Two police officers and two people who considered themselves "sovereign citizens" -- a 16-year-old and his father -- were killed in West Memphis, Ark., in a 2010 shootout. Two North Carolina officers who train police to deal with sovereign citizens often cite the Arkansas case when explaining the danger.
Two police officers and two people who considered themselves "sovereign… (Alan Spearman, The Commercial…)

GREENSBORO, N.C. — With his shaggy hair, bushy mustache and obstinate ways, Jeffrey Allen Wright was well known to sheriff's deputies in Santa Rosa County, Fla.

Wright, 55, drove around with a phony license plate. When stopped, he refused to produce a driver's license. Once he threatened to sue a deputy who pulled him over.

After he was fined for traffic offenses in September, Wright paid with counterfeit money orders. When deputies served warrants for felony counterfeiting March 8, Wright barricaded himself in his garage and declared that he would not be "a servant of the king."

He broke out windows with a handgun, then pointed the weapon at officers, police said. Three deputies fired, killing Wright.

When Det. Rob Finch of the Greensboro police department heard about the incident, two words came to mind: sovereign citizen.

Finch teaches police and public officials around the country how to deal with self-described "sovereign citizens" like Wright. Finch and his partner, Det. Kory Flowers, have trained nearly 15,000 police and 5,000 public officials to combat sovereigns, zealots who refuse to recognize government authority in virtually any form.

Violent confrontations are rare, but the FBI says at least six police officers have been killed by sovereigns since 2000. A man tied to the movement shot and killed a California Highway Patrol officer who stopped him in Contra Costa County last year. A responding officer shot and killed the assailant.

The agency calls sovereigns — who number between 100,000 and 300,000 — a "domestic terrorist movement."

This time of year has federal authorities on alert, since a central tenet of the sovereigns movement is that its adherents believe they owe no income taxes.

Sovereigns assert that the U.S. Treasury has set up a secret money account for every American, which can be reclaimed through a bizarre set of legal filings known as redemption. They say everything from taxes to traffic tickets can be disposed of by drawing on the secret Treasury accounts through elaborate legal claims and mountains of paperwork.

Many sovereigns file invoices with police or judges, demanding hundreds of dollars an hour for time spent stopped by officers or when in court to answer charges.

Finch, 31, said his training sessions began after several sovereigns pulled over by Greensboro police in 2008 and 2009 refused to produce driver's licenses. They demanded that officers recite oaths of office and fill out long questionnaires.

"To them, a police officer is just a man in a Halloween costume," Finch said.

Other police departments began requesting their eight-hour seminars. Finch and Flowers now train agents of the FBI, DEA, ATF and Homeland Security — as well as district attorneys, clerks of court, judges and registrars nationwide. Finch says they are the only officers in the country who offer such street-level training.

They teach police to recognize sovereigns by their convoluted legal jargon and "mouthy" defiance. "Sovereign citizens are more likely not to obey their commands and more likely to commit violence during a traffic stop," Finch said.

Finch and Flowers often cite the 2010 deaths of two police officers in West Memphis, Ark., who were shot by a father-son sovereign team during a traffic stop for a bogus license plate. One officer had become distracted by a thick sheaf of papers thrust at him by one of the sovereigns.

Finch said he instructs officers to ignore paperwork other than license and registration. "Your antennae should immediately go up," he tells officers. "They refuse to recognize your authority, and that creates a dangerous situation."

As recently as August, two sheriff's deputies in Laplace, La., were shot and killed in an ambush. Police said at least two of the five men accused in the killings were sovereign citizens.

In Florida, police approached Wright carefully because he had told them in past encounters that he was not subject to police authority. Wright paid his taxes with a handwritten "coupon for payment," said Deputy Richard Aloy of the Santa Rosa Sheriff's Department. He had renounced his U.S. citizenship.

"They knew they had a bad individual, and they took the necessary precautions," Finch said.

Even nonviolent sovereigns can cause headaches through what Finch calls "paper terrorism." Some squat in foreclosed homes and file phony deeds claiming ownership, "paying" with photos of silver dollars. Sovereigns believe U.S. currency has no value but recognize precious metals as valid currency.

Many sovereigns — including the father-son team in the Arkansas shooting — hold seminars of their own in which they charge for lessons on redemption and tax avoidance. "You pay them in cash for them to tell you money has no value," Finch said.

Officials from Greensboro and other cities pushed for a new North Carolina law that makes filing false liens a felony rather than a misdemeanor. Finch said the law, coupled with training of court officials, has helped block or dismiss many phony liens and nuisance lawsuits.

But sovereigns continue to file suits and liens, hoping to claim property and damages, Finch said.

At one meeting Finch attended, a charismatic sovereign citizen told a rapt audience that U.S. currency has no value. But he also explained how to redeem millions of dollars from secret U.S. Treasury accounts, and how to use the courts to evade government control and taxes.

Afterward, Finch said, he asked the man what he did for a living. He was a U.S. Postal Service worker.

Finch asked how he justified working for a government he considered illegitimate. "He told me he needed the money to live out his ideology," he said.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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