Sovereign citizens in Nevada are using mobile phones to summon fellow sovereigns to routine traffic stops to document the situation with video cameras and, according to one retired police chief, intimidate police officers.
“Here in Las Vegas our officers have stopped sovereign citizens who have activated a phone tree,” said Capt. Al Salinas of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and director of the Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center, a DHS-recognized fusion center. “They have been on the cell phones right in front of officers, refusing to respond to the officer’s request for driver’s licenses and registration and insurance.”
Salinas could not tell Security Management whether the sovereign citizens who have been pulled over are using social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to notify other sovereign citizens of the traffic stop and its location.
In some instances, pulled-over sovereigns call another sovereign and discuss how to handle the situation in front of the officer.
“The officers,” explained Salinas, “have overheard conversations that these individuals who were stopped for the traffic violation and they’re asking the other person on the phone: What should I do? The officer is right here?”
Some officers have then received a surprise.
“And then a short time later, a carload of individuals that know the driver who was stopped show up at the scene and start questioning the officer’s authority,” said Salinas. “They start to create a disturbance with the officer doing the car stop.”
One sovereign citizen, according to Salinas, freely admitted to his officer that notifying other sovereign citizens of police stops has become a protocol within his community.
The tactic raises serious officer safety issues. Officers are already being told to be vigilant when dealing with suspected and self-proclaimed sovereign citizens. Since 2002, six police officers have been killed by sovereign citizens, according to the FBI, which describes the movement as a domestic terrorist threat.
The possibility that a routine stop could end with one police officer confronted by a group of hostile sovereign citizens only increases the fear of violence among officers.
“A lone officer’s safety is in jeopardy when he has three to four to five people who are not only questioning his authority but they’re encroaching upon his car stop, his area of responsibility," said Salinas. "[The officer] should request assistance and that’s what we tell officers to do."
Salinas, however, stressed that sovereign citizens are well within their rights to show up at a traffic stop and film the encounter as long as they keep their distance and do not interfere with the officer’s duties.
Retired West Memphis Police Chief Bob Paudert, who provides sovereign citizen awareness training to law enforcement across the country, believes this new tactic is trying to goad police officers into reacting aggressively so it can be used for propaganda purposes to incite other sovereigns to violence. Sovereign citizen videos, including those involving police traffic stops, proliferate across the Internet, particularly YouTube.
The sovereign citizen movement is by no means monolithic, according to reports from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the FBI (.pdf), and others explain. Like any ideological movement, said a researcher who specializes in extremist movements and wanted to remain anonymous in hopes of staying off the movement’s radar, sovereign citizens have offshoots, factions, and infighting.
There is, however, a unifying thread holding sovereign ideology together, namely a belief in their own personal sovereignty and hostility to government power. Sovereigns believe that they exist outside the jurisdiction of most, if not all, government authorities, whether local, state, or federal. Some sovereigns make an exception for the duly elected office of the county sheriff though.
“They have no issue with proclaiming that they’re sovereign citizens and that they do not recognize the officer’s authority and do not need to conform to the laws of the state of Nevada,” Salinas said, describing officers’ interactions with sovereigns.
Because they do not recognize government authority, usually based on a selective reading of the Constitution and a paranoid, conspiratorial interpretation of American history, sovereigns do not believe in government regulation. During a traffic stop, for example, that means police officers are confronted with a driver that more than likely does not have a state-issued driver’s license or auto registration card. Many times when officers are handed documentation, it’s in the form of fake driver’s licenses and registration cards. Many sovereign citizens also fabricate fake license plates that advertise their ideology.
While fringe elements within the movement have lashed out violently, sovereigns are generally known for engaging in white-collar crime and a tactic known as “paper terrorism.”
It “involves the use of bogus legal documents and filings, or the misuse of legitimate ones, to intimidate, harass, threaten, or retaliate against public officials, law enforcement officers, or private citizens,” a recent ADL report, The Lawless Ones, explains. “Acts of paper terrorism can range from simple and straightforward acts, such as frivolous lawsuits, to more complex strategies, such as filing fraudulent IRS forms alleging that the victim has been paid large sums of money, in order to ‘sic’ the IRS on him or her.”