Sovereign citizens: Laws don’t apply

Todd Detwiler sat before Blair County Judge Daniel Milliron late last month and was released after spending eight months in custody, either prison or Torrance State Hospital, despite being charged with only misdemeanor fraud and summary traffic violations.

The length of confinement stemmed not from the offenses but because Detwiler refused to sign court paperwork and then went on a hunger strike at Blair County Prison because of a belief that he does not have to adhere to Pennsylvania traffic laws.

“Mr. Detwiler is the classic sovereign citizen,” Milliron said during the proceedings.

Detwiler, who the Mirror was unable to contact for comment, is not alone in these or similar beliefs. The sovereign citizen movement is a loose, anti-government subculture that believes portions of federal and state laws do not apply to them, though aspects of the ideology differ from person to person and group to group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“They feel that they are being attacked by an illegitimate system of law,” said SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok.

The number of sovereign citizens has grown since 2008, Potok said. The center roughly estimates there to be 300,000 sovereign citizens nationally.

There are 12-15 known anti-government extremists, including some sovereign citizens, living in Blair and surrounding counties, according to state police.

Laws don’t apply

State police do not go out searching for sovereign citizens, said Pennsylvania State Police Troop G public information officer Trooper David McGarvey. They often make themselves known either by filing lawsuits or sending letters directly to state police outlining their political philosophy.

Essays on the SPLC website outline the basic beliefs of sovereigns. Sovereign citizens believe that the laws and government organized by America’s founding fathers is rooted in “common law.” According to sovereigns, this system was replaced at some point by admiralty law, the legal system of the sea and international commerce.

Although there is no time agreed upon by sovereigns as to when this change took place, many point to 1933, when the U.S. went off the gold standard. By having currency not backed by gold, sovereign citizens believe the government racked up large foreign debts. Sovereigns believe the government then pledged every American citizen and their potential earning capabilities as collateral to investors, thus enslaving the population.

They believe this begins at birth, when a baby is issued a Social Security number and birth certificate. Sovereigns believe that the government sets up a secret corporate trust in each citizen’s name, with the rights of an American split between the actual person and his or her corporate identity. Sovereigns refer to this corporate persona as the “straw man.”

Sovereigns claim to see evidence of their beliefs everywhere. They view the decorative gold fringe often found on flags in courthouses as denoting admiralty law. The exclusive use of capital letters on birth certificates and court documents point to the straw man identity.

Sheriffs recognized

Sovereigns generally do recognize the authority of county sheriffs, Potok said, because they are the highest, directly elected law enforcement official.

They maintain liberation from the corporate identity — and adherence to admiralty law — can be achieved by filing a series of complex legal documents in a process sovereigns call “redemption.” Some also believe they can access the money in the secret treasury account set up at birth.

There were initially racist ideas at the core of sovereign ideology, Potok said. Sovereigns believed that only whites could become sovereign citizens because African-Americans were guaranteed citizenship by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. By receiving citizenship this way, sovereigns believed blacks are permanently subject to the jurisdiction of federal and state governments.

Though some still hold these beliefs, the racist roots have largely been forgotten in recent years. A large number of present day sovereigns are African-Americans, Potok said. The movement is far from a regional phenomenon: They have appeared in all 50 states and are as likely to appear in cities as the countryside.

“You see it with rural whites and with urban blacks,” Potok said. “It’s all over the place.”

Once redeemed, sovereigns feel they are exempt from certain legal requirements, like paying taxes and holding driver’s licenses or vehicle registrations.

“They vehemently believe the government does not have the right to require car registration, driver’s licenses and auto insurance,” Potok said.

Incidents of violence

On occasion, sovereign citizens become violent. Terry Nichols, a co-conspirator of Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing, has been identified as a sovereign citizen.

Another notable occurrence happened in West Memphis, Ark., in 2010. During a traffic stop, a father and his 16-year-old son killed police officers Brandon Paudert and Bill Evans. The pair of sovereign citizens were killed in an ensuing firefight with law enforcement.

Paudert’s father, Bob, was West Memphis police chief at the time of the incident. He now lectures about officer safety when dealing with sovereign citizens. Paudert spoke at the Blair County Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Service in Hollidaysburg and delivered training to local police officers in June.

Police procedure

Locally, police have encountered sovereign citizens during traffic incidents.

State police troopers are advised to take extra caution when dealing with sovereigns at traffic stops, McGarvey said. For the safety of both police and motorists, McGarvey said troopers are told not to argue with them on the side of the road about the validity of their claims. Instead, troopers are just to issue them a citation and tell them they can make their case in court.

In 2011, Don Ralph Ickes of Osterburg was arrested on I-99 after driving with a fraudulent plate issued by Oregon-based religious group Embassy of Heaven. Ickes refused to acknowledge police officers and had to be forcibly removed from his vehicle.

During court proceedings, Ickes identified himself as a “sovereign man” and maintained that he did not need a driver’s license if he was merely “traveling” on the road and not using a vehicle for commercial use.

Ickes could not be reached for comment.

Detwiler was first charged last June with misdemeanor fraud, operating a motorcycle without a license, valid inspection and registration and other summary traffic violations.

East Freedom Police Sgt. Nathan Claycomb was the officer who stopped Detwiler. Detwiler allegedly produced a fraudulent identification card and other documentation that identified him as a “trust” and able to travel on the road without a license or registration, Claycomb said. Detwiler maintained that these were the only documents he needed to provide.

“He wasn’t violent or irate, just uncooperative,” Claycomb said.

The motorcycle was impounded and taken to Roaring Spring. A few days later, Detwiler allegedly appeared where the bike had been taken and recovered the vehicle.

Roaring Spring Police Chief Milton Fields then stopped Detwiler, who again allegedly produced an unofficial ID card and paperwork addressed to the attorney general’s office of Pennsylvania and Maryland declaring him to be a trust.

Detwiler also allegedly affixed a cardboard license plate emblazoned with numbers and the phrases “non-commercial” and “dei gratia” (Latin for “by the grace of God”) in magic marker.

Remains on guard

During the exchange, Fields said Detwiler told him he was a sovereign citizen and did not have to adhere to rules and regulations of the road. Fields said he never lets his guard down during traffic stops, but Detwiler’s behavior was an additional cause for caution.

“He was irate and that raised my concern as well,” Fields said. “The hair went up on my neck.”

Fields said he told Detwiler he would not have an argument with him alongside the road and advised Detwiler that charges would be filed. The plate was confiscated, but Fields waited at the scene until Detwiler had someone pick up the motorcycle with a pickup truck.

The encounter with Detwiler was not the first time Fields dealt with a sovereign citizen.

In 1998, Fields stopped 81-year-old Steven Levendowski of New Enterprise for driving with a license plate marked “Christian Nation.” Levendowski, whose name was spelled several different ways in the police report, ignored Fields and handed him a “US Constitutional Driver’s License.”

After the arrest, Fields said other sovereign citizens showed up at Levendowski’s trial and tried to put liens on his property. Filing claims has proven a trend amongst sovereign citizens nationally.

‘Citizens grand jury’

There are two types of actions typically taken by sovereign citizens after legal action is taken against them, said Bill Raftery, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts.

One is to file false liens, tax claims or make claims of bogus debt against anyone involved in proceedings against them in hopes of ruining their credit or otherwise inconveniencing them. Law enforcement, judges, clerks and other court employees are the most common targets.

The other activity is false process, Raftery said, in which sovereign citizens create their own courts — sometimes referred to as a “citizens grand jury” — and file “charges” and produce documents against court employees and police officers.

In recent years, several states have created or strengthened laws against filing false documents against government employees or others because of the sovereign citizens use of such tactics, Raftery said.

Blending the two, they sometimes issue liens and claims from these manufactured courts, Raftery said. Sovereigns also file legal proceedings against judges and police through the federal and state judicial systems they claim not to recognize.

“Part of what happens is they recognize parts of the law that agree with them but ignore ones they don’t agree with,” Raftery said.

A spokeswoman from the Pennsylvania state court system said they are aware of the sovereigns but do not discuss matters that deal with security publicly.

Sovereign citizens oftentimes fail to appear in court after being charged, Raftery said, and when they do, they refuse to acknowledge the courts authority over them.

As for Detwiler, he was released to the custody of his mother and is to be under the care of Bedford-Somerset Mental Health Agency. In nine months, he will return to Milliron’s courtroom for a review to determine if he is competent enough to stand trial for the alleged traffic violations.