Followers of the anti-government movement consistently waste court time and public money
The Sovereign Citizens movement emerged in the United States in the 1970s as an ideology denying the legitimacy of the federal government. Labeled a domestic terrorist threat by law enforcement agencies, it has enjoyed a resurgence since the COVID-19 global pandemic and has been used as a justification by dozens of rioters at the January 6, 2021 assault on the US Capitol. Today, the anti-government movement contesting the jurisdiction of courts over its adherents continues to spread further beyond American borders.
Take a recent court case in Northern Ireland, where a man named Paul Kevin Caravan faced criminal charges for damage to an electricity meter.
Many of the accused's tactics were right out of the sovereign citizen handbook. Of particular note were remarks deliver by the presiding judge about Caravan's conduct during the court proceedings, which can be applied to sovereign citizens and pseudo-law adherents around the world. We’ll look at both.
As is common in sovereign citizen judicial encounters, Caravan's behavior was immensely disruptive to the court.
First, he refused to enter the “dock” area of the courtroom. Typically, sovereign citizens do not wish to cross a specified physical boundary within the courtroom and enter the area specified for the defendant. Their underlying belief is that being in a certain location in court means they are creating “joinder” (i.e. a contract with the court).
When asked if he “understood” something, Caravan repeatedly told the court “I stand under no one”. Sovereign citizens often will not admit to “understanding” a statement from a judge or a similar authority. Their movement has in fact created a new meaning for such a question. They do not believe that they are being asked whether they comprehend, but instead are being asked, "do you stand under?”. Answering “yes,” in their twisted, invalid logic, means that they have created a contract with the government, thus giving power to the government to judge and penalize them for their crimes. If there is no contract, then they are above the law. Creating a contract with the government is the only way a sovereign citizen, in this conspiratorial worldview, can be arrested or punished for a crime, including murder.
Caravan also refused to allow the court to address him by his legal name. Instead, he insisted on being called “Paul Kevin” who was “making a special appearance", another preferred tactic of sovereign citizens in court. Multiple convicted rioters at the US Capitol have employed similar courtroom strategies. Pauline Bauer, convicted for her role in the January 6, 2021 attacks told the federal court that she was there by “special divine appearance...a living soul”. Another rioter James Johnatakis was found guilty of injuring a police officer in the attack to stop the certification of Joe Biden's presidential election win. His sovereign citizens self-defence was called "gobbledegook" and "bullshit" by a judge.
In the Northern Ireland case, Caravan also declared himself a “supreme being” who does not “consent” to the charges filed against him.
This was in keeping with the sovereign citizens' belief that in order for a charge against them to be valid, they have to consent to it. Except this is not how the law works. If a criminal needed only to say “I don’t consent” to avoid arrest or further prosecution, all jails and prisons would be empty. Consent is not a requirement in arrest or imprisonment.
Caravan told the court that his birth certificate was “fraudulent” and that his parents were likely to blame. Conspiratorial beliefs about birth certificates are central to sovereign citizen ideology. Many followers allege that personal documents in which the name is written in all capital letters are fraudulent. To remedy this, sovereigns will often attempt to revoke their birth certificates in an attempt to end their inadvertently created contract with the government.
A new variety of sovereign citizens in the US called American State Nationals are teaching adherents that filling out certain paperwork (that is conveniently available for purchase) can also break that contract. These arguments are completely baseless.
According to the ruling by Judge Ranaghan in the Caravan case, the accused was rude, dismissive, obstructive, confrontational, arrogant, and had misbehaved so badly, that he was holding him in contempt and ordering him to be placed in jail. The belligerence, aggressivity and pleasure taken in arguing the primacy of his beliefs are all in accordance with customary sovereign citizen personality traits and behaviors.
Sovereign citizens are never typical citizens. Or as Judge Ranaghan stated, persons like Mr. Caravan who attempt pseudo-law tactics “put themselves either outside or above the law.”
It is difficult to argue with the judge's assessment. Sovereign citizens and persons of similar ideologies are most accurately described as and best labeled as "outlaws".
Additionally, and as the judge in Caravan's case pointed out, these types of defendants consistently waste court time and public money.
But measures can be taken to prevent such individuals from appearing in court with debunked arguments and disruptive techniques.
A Canadian superior court has had considerable success dealing with sovereigns. The Court of King’s Bench of Alberta has created a Master Order which identifies common characteristics that pseudo-law litigants attempt to display in court. They have a designated clerk who reviews a litigant’s materials for any signs of pseudo-legal language. If detected, the case is rejected and returned to the litigants who are then asked to correct their errors. In most cases, individuals with rejected motions never resubmit and thus do not waste the court's time or the public’s money.
The Court of King’s Bench of Alberta has the right idea. Courts around the world should adopt a similar protocol when dealing with those employing sovereign citizen-like frivolous tactics.
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