Sovereign citizens say they're above the law
Would you believe it if someone told you a billion dollar bank account could be yours by simply renouncing your citizenship? Probably not, but there are currently around 400,000 people in the United States who have been a little easier to convince.
Sovereign citizens, or those who do not recognize federal, state or local laws as legitimate, are considered domestic terrorists by the FBI — and a few people who subscribe to this ideology have recently crept into Central Florida.
Most recently, the Orange County Sheriff's Office responded to a couple of squatters who had illegally taken up residence in a bank-owned apartment at 3510 Khayyam Ave. near UCF, according to a police report. Squatting, said UCF Police Department deputy officer Brett Meade, is a common sovereign citizen tactic.
It took two hours to finally evict the men, who repeatedly yelled they would not come out of the residence because they lived there and deputies were not allowed to enter. One of the men stated he "had papers" and would not cooperate, the report states.
Oftentimes, Meade explained, sovereign citizens fabricate legal documents including drivers licenses, birth certificates and vehicle tags. Although these people have the constitutional right to call themselves sovereign citizens, the act of fabricating such documents and driving without proper documentation is punishable by law.
"If someone claims to be a sovereign citizen, that's a freedom of speech issue. I can claim to be president of the moon," said Meade, a specialist in sovereign citizens.
There are three categories of sovereign citizen, he explained, including constitutional, who interpret the U.S. Constitution differently; religious, who claim they can only be guided by God's law; and diplomatic, who claim to be aboriginal Native Americans or diplomats of another country.
"What all three have in common is they believe the U.S. government is not legitimate," Meade said.
In order to pay off the country's debts coming out of the Civil War, sovereign citizens believe former President Abraham Lincoln sold the United States, transforming it into a corporation and its citizens corporate slaves, added Roberto Hernandez, a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
While people can certainly believe whatever they choose, the problem starts when these citizens begin breaking the law — a common thread woven through the years.
In 2010, a routine traffic stop ended in the deaths of two Arkansas officers and two sovereign citizens, Jerry Kane and his 16-year-old son Joseph. During the stop, the officers began to question Kane, and his son jumped out of the vehicle and open fired with an AK-47 assault rifle. The father and son were killed in a gun battle later in the night, according to ABC News.
The FDLE is also currently investigating a February incident in Orange County that left two deputies injured and one sovereign citizen dead, Hernandez said. Outside a Publix at the intersection of Hoffner Avenue and Conway Road, the gunman, 46, was trying to reconcile with a woman who had previously filed an injunction against him, when police arrived to assist her, according to Click Orlando. The man fired a couple rounds, which were returned by the officers, killing the man.
And the rise of sovereign citizen is a concern for everyone, not just those in law enforcement, Meade said.
"If a sovereign citizen's not shy about having a confrontation with a law enforcement officer, they're not going to be shy about having a confrontation with your neighbor over leaves in his yard," he said.
However, Hernandez emphasized that not every sovereign citizen is of violent disposition or has violent tendencies. It's a small percentage of them.
Many times, those who turn to sovereign citizenship are those going through difficult financial times. With seminars held throughout the country, attendees are sometimes told the ideology will lift the burden of paying taxes.
"Some of the people who claim to be sovereign citizens are just trying to get out of their foreclosure," Hernandez said. "We've seen a lot more people identifying themselves as sovereign citizens not actually subscribing to the ideology."
Subscribers are also those who have had negative experiences with law enforcement. However, like a vicious circle, those who already identify as sovereign will most likely interpret any encounter with the law as negative.
"In their mind, law enforcement has no right to pull them over," Hernandez said.
However, Hernandez and Meade agreed it varies from person to person, and there may be some degree of psychological issues among those who are easily swayed.
"Some people are susceptible to being indoctrinated to anything. Once you've got them on the hook you can tell them anything," Hernandez said. "Some people will go and think this is bologna whether they've had a negative experience or not."
The FDLE and UCF PD, along with several other area agencies, are working to better educate their officers on how to safely deal with sovereign citizens.