Sovereign Citizens: Deciphering Their Conspiracy Theories and Strategies for Productive Engagement in Law

Chase T. Boss, Staff Writer

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The trial of Darrell Brooks, the perpetrator of the 2021 Waukesha Christmas Parade attack, garnered widespread attention for his peculiar behavior, frequent use of quasi-legal jargon, and repeated assertions of being beyond the court’s jurisdiction.[1] Brooks’ expressed beliefs at trial, while astonishing, are not unique. Here in Pittsburgh, William Hardison echoed similar assertions before a standoff with local police during an eviction.[2] Brooks, Hardison, and an estimated 300,000 people in the United States,[3] are part of a loose collective of conspiracy theorists known as “sovereign citizens.” From a legal perspective, there is no such thing as a sovereign citizen, and their claims hold no merit.[4]

Law enforcement intelligence officials identified sovereign citizens as the foremost serious terrorist threat facing our country in recent years.[5] While their criminal activities shifted from primarily white-collar crimes to instances of violence, their preferred method of engagement with the public remains “paper terrorism.”[6] This tactic involves seeking revenge against perceived wrongdoers by filing false property liens and convoluted legal documents against law enforcement, public officials, and private companies.[7]

Although the leaderless movement has various offshoots, most sovereign citizens are middle-aged, white, politically far-right males residing in the southern United States.[8] In a simplified rendition of their conspiracy theories, followers believe that admiralty law supplanted America’s common law system.[9] This change is believed to have solidified when the country abandoned the gold standard in 1933, pledging its citizens as collateral to foreign investors.[10] According to this belief, a birth certificate opened a secret account in the U.S. Treasury, registered in the baby’s “corporate” name (believed to be denoted by all capital letters.)[11] A subset of the movement, represented by Hardison’s beliefs, aligns with Moorish sovereign citizens who assert that a 1786 treaty between the United States and Morocco grants them a diplomatic status along with special immunities and privileges.[12] The complexity of these theories underscores their confusing nature.  

Sovereign citizens attempt to absolve themselves of legal responsibilities, such as tax payments or supplying a license at traffic stops, by asserting that they are “flesh-and-blood” individuals, thereby detaching from their supposed corporate shell.[13] They believe that by signing documents with ink or red blood thumbprints and employing a specific combination of words, punctuation, ink color, and references, they can circumvent legal obligations.[14] Moorish sovereigns also adopt new names, often incorporating the term “bey,” to distance themselves from their corporate shell.[15] Courts have consistently deemed such arguments baseless, asserting that they strain the judicial system’s effectiveness and efficiency.[16]

Sovereign citizens heavily rely on genuine government documents and codified laws such as the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Uniform Commercial Code, and Supreme Court decisions to bolster their arguments.[17] However, coupled with incomprehensible reasoning, much of the paperwork they generate ends up in court as frivolous lawsuits, often retaliatory or harassing in nature.[18] Responding to the challenges posed by sovereign citizens demands thoughtful consideration.

Nearly one-third of all federal court cases involve at least one pro se party.[19] While a very small minority of pro se litigants are sovereign citizens, the internet serves as a primary source of information for any untrained litigant, facilitating the spread of sovereign ideology through videos and flawed interpretations of the law.[20]

While clips circulate online of judges refuting sovereign citizen arguments, such quick and harsh dismissals may reflect poorly on the respect owed to pro se litigants and could indicate bias among courts and attorneys.[21] Research on sovereign citizens remains limited, but it is evident that their arguments do not necessarily indicate mental illness and should not prompt labeling based solely on legal misunderstandings.[22]

In addressing spurious filings, legal professionals should adopt a critical approach rather than a dismissive one, promoting a deeper understanding of the intricacies of these beliefs to mitigate the risk of escalating conspiracy theories further.[23] Such efforts would better serve this niche community by fostering education rather than perpetuating dismissal and bias, ultimately promoting a more inclusive and informed legal system.




[4] Caesar Kalinowski IV, A Legal Response to the Sovereign Citizen Movement, 80 Mont. L. Rev. 153 (2019)


[6] Id.




[10] Id.

[11] Id.



[14] Id.









[23] Id.

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