Have you ever been pulled over for speeding and thought: “Gosh, I wish I could just opt out of the law”? Well, I have good news and bad news for you. The good news: there is a school of thought available for that kind of impulse! The bad news: engagement with Sovereign Citizen ideology might indicate your general disengagement from society, lead you to worse legal outcomes, and have the bonus effect of landing you on a federal watchlist. The term “Sovereign Citizen” is a broad-strokes identifier for groups of people that believe that the United States, its laws, and—often, most importantly—its taxes do not apply to them.[1] Sovereign Citizens see the Government and its jurisdiction as illegitimate, often through lenses of a broad array of conspiracy theories.[2] It does not quite matter which conspiracy a particular sovereign citizen subscribes to, as long as they grasp the big principles: (1) the government has long been infected by a tyrannical shadow government, (2) government agents are both aware and complicit in this conspiracy, and (3) they want your money and your rights.[3]

The Sovereign Citizen movement has been around for a while, but legal professionals are unlikely to run across one in their everyday practice unless they work heavily with indigent populations.[4] Legal support services may struggle with how to balance a Sovereign Citizen’s frustrating unwillingness to participate in the legal system with an obligation to help their client seek the best outcome.[5] Although it can be an almost jarring experience to represent a Sovereign Citizen, it is crucial that attorneys and the legal community at large begin to understand the Sovereign Citizen ideology and methodology in order to better serve this niche but rapidly increasing community more effectively. It should be the prerogative of the legal community to understand the Sovereign Citizen movement to cut down on the number of pro se litigants waging a futile war of misunderstood legal principles against frustrated prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges alike.

It may be frustrating when representing or interacting with a U.S. citizen who claims to play by a different set of rules than the rest, but it is important to ask why these once norm-abiding citizens now play for their own team. It is likely that the answer can be found within the sociological theory of anomie. Anomie theory posits that when an individual is placed in an unfavorable social position and is unable to accomplish society’s prescribed goals for an individual (monetary achievement), they experience a strain that forces them to seek ways to accomplish these goals outside of normal society.[6] Under this theoretical framework, it is logical to expect that when an individual experiences normlessness after their means of accomplishing monetary success is frustrated, they become more susceptible to ideology that would support their success outside of the norm.[7] This logic is mirrored in the Sovereign Citizen Movement’s increased popularity in recent decades.

While the sovereign citizen movement has been steadily growing since its inception, membership often sees increases in conjunction with economic downturns.[8] During the mortgage lending crisis in the late 2000s, the Sovereign Citizen movement saw significant growth. This growth was repeated more than a decade later upon the advent of massive social unrest amid the COVID-19 pandemic.[9] The theoretical framework of anomie should help the legal community understand why these individuals who perceive such strain have chosen to engage with such a preposterous-seeming ideology.

Because of their refusal to participate in a game they see as rigged against them, adherence to the Sovereign Citizen ideals will likely lead them to far more negative outcomes in the U.S. legal system on average due to their preference for pro se litigation. Sovereign Citizens engage in a very high rate of pro se litigation, largely due to their obstinate desire to use their own legal arguments, as they see agents of the court as complicit in the government’s grand conspiracy.[10] This tendency, as with almost all pro se defendants, leads to far poorer outcomes than if they had not foregone representation and carries the extra detriment of wasting judicial resources.[11] A term often used to describe a pro se Sovereign Citizen is “paper terrorist.”[12] Pro se Sovereign Citizens often use the combination of legal-sounding arguments and their propensity for conspiracy theories to create a perfect storm of nonsensical motions with which they flood the court.[13] The only thing a pro se Sovereign Citizen succeeds in is wasting the court’s time and hurting themselves in the process.[14]

Sovereign Citizens’ poor legal outcomes are also in part due to what can be generously characterized as their “problematic” behavior in court.[15] In addition to filing their oft-nonsensical pro se motions, Sovereign Citizen defendants have been noted to disobey courtroom rules and judge orders, be held in contempt or barred from the courtroom altogether, improperly object to motions, and demand the court prove its jurisdiction over them.[16] Sovereign Citizens need to be represented by more counsel who understand the impetus of their ideological adherence, lest their “paper terrorism” and outrageous behavior guarantee their downfall in court.

A Sovereign Citizen’s cycle of disengagement and negative outcomes will only fuel the cognitive dissonance and susceptibility to extremist ideology, eventually leading to more advanced levels of buy-in than simple “paper terrorism.” While it may be amusing to some to see an exasperated judge leaf through hundreds of pages talking about the Uniform Commercial Code during a criminal proceeding, “paper terrorism” is not the worst-case scenario for a Sovereign Citizen.[17] A popular tactic employed against government officials perceived to be corrupt is to file bogus liens against them, often totaling millions of dollars.[18] This type of activity has landed the Sovereign Citizen Movement on the FBI Domestic Terrorist Watchlist.[19]

Retaliation against government officials can turn violent, as illustrated by the deadly shooting of several police officers in Memphis, Tennessee by two Sovereign Citizens.[20] Many incidents of assault and kidnapping have accompanied the proliferation of the Sovereign Citizen Movement in recent decades, making it all more important to further study the ideology and cease the cycle of extremist indoctrination.[21] Breaking the cycle of negative outcomes for Sovereign Citizens requires the legal community to provide patience and analysis for these tragically misinformed—albeit potentially dangerous—and normless Sovereign Citizens.


[1] Holly Christensen, Sovereign Citizens: The Uses and Abuses of the Judicial System, Penn St. L. Rev.: F. Blog (Apr. 21, 2022), http://www.pennstatelawreview.org/the-forum/sovereign-citizens-the-uses-and-abuses-of-the-judicial-sy/ [https://perma.cc/762R-WFC8].

[2] The most popular of these conspiracies being the belief that the original common-law legal system was secretly replaced by an admiralty law system. While some sovereign citizens believe this conspiracy occurred during the civil war, there are also those who believe that it occurred when the United States abandoned the gold standard in 1933. By abandoning the gold standard system, many sovereign citizens believe that the U.S. government put its own citizens up as collateral. See Southern Poverty Law Center, Sovereign Citizens Movement, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/sovereign-citizens-movement [https://perma.cc/BP6Z-VALA] [hereinafter SPLC].

[3] See Brendan Joel Kelley, Interview with a Sovereign: Judge Anna’s World, Southern Poverty Law Center (Dec. 15, 2017), https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/12/15/interview-sovereign-judge-anna%E2%80%99s-world [https://perma.cc/68M3-KKAX] (interviewing a sovereign citizen movement leader and the guiding principles she uses to recruit others to her cause).

[4] Jonathan Holbrook, Surviving Your Next Sovereign Citizen, North Carolina Criminal Law Blog (April 11, 2018), https://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/surviving-next-sovereign-citizen/ [https://perma.cc/2D9P-UYW5].

[5] See id.

[6] Jón Gunnar Bernburg, Anomie Theory, Oxford Research Encyclopedias (Mar. 26, 2019), https://oxfordre.com/criminology/display/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264079.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264079-e-244 [https://perma.cc/9ZZ5-78TN] (distilling Robert Merton’s theory that “a shared overemphasis on monetary success goals undermines individual commitment to social rules and generates a particularly acute strain on individuals in disadvantaged social positions.”).

[7] Octavia Ionescu et al. Political Extremism and Perceived Anomie: New Evidence of Political Extremes’ Symmetries and Asymmetries Within French Samples, 34 Int’l Rev. of Soc. Psych. 21, 34 (2021); Mason Youngblood, Extremist Ideology as a Complex Contagion: the Spread of Far-Right Radicalization in the United States Between 2005 and 2017, 7 Humanities Soc. Sci. Commc’n 1, 2 (2020) (positing that an environmental factor like poverty positively influences an individual’s risk of adopting extremist ideology).

[8] Erwin Hodge, The Sovereign Ascendant: Financial Collapse, Status Anxiety, and the Rebirth of the Sovereign Citizen Movement, 4 Front Soc. 1, 4 (2019) (finding that Sovereign Citizen ideology is often triggered by “sharp economic downturns or instabilities that threaten people with foreclosures or the erasure of their lifesavings.”).

[9] See SPLC, supra note 2 (attributing the social unrest and proliferation of conspiracy theories to the uptick in Sovereign Citizen membership during the COVID-19 pandemic).

[10] Jessica K. Phillips, Not All Pro Se Litigants Are Created Equally: Examining the Need for New Pro Se Litigant Classifications through the Lens of the Sovereign Citizen Movement, 29 Geo. J. Legal Ethics 1221, 1222 (2016).

[11] Id. at 1228.

[12] Id. at 1222.

[13] See SPLC, supra note 2 (“A simple traffic violation or pet-licensing case can end up provoking dozens of court filings containing hundreds of pages of pseudo-legal sovereign arguments”).

[14] See Phillips, supra note 10, at 1228.

[15] Christine M. Sarteschi, Sovereign Citizens: A Psychological and Criminological Analysis, 71 (2020).

[16] Id.

[17] See SPLC, supra note 2.

[18] Anti-Defamation League, The Lawless Ones: The Resurgence of the Sovereign Citizen Movement, 22–23 (2012) (https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/combating-hate/Lawless-Ones-2012-Edition-WEB-final.pdf) [https://perma.cc/NH6G-9XUJ].

[19] SPLC, supra note 2.

[20] Anti-Defamation League, supra note 18, at 32.

[21] See id.

Friday, September 22, 2023