Martin Jonassen describes himself as a sovereign citizen, one of a loose affiliation of people who believe most laws don’t apply to them. Adherents also strive to make life difficult and sometimes dangerous for law enforcement and the judiciary, and Indiana lawmakers have taken notice.
Jonassen will be sentenced Feb. 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division, where he was convicted last year of kidnapping his adult daughter in Missouri with the intention of taking her to Michigan. Jonassen was arrested in Portage in 2011 after police found him trying to drag his daughter back to a hotel room from which she fled, nude, across U.S. 20 to a nearby liquor store, where she had pleaded for help. Jonassen also was convicted of obstruction of justice for later trying to persuade his daughter in numerous phone calls from behind bars to recant her testimony against him.
In a span of about 15 months after his arrest, Jonassen filed more than 180 pro se motions, according to court records. Judges warned him repeatedly to stop filing duplicative and frivolous motions, but the baffling, often harassing handwritten pleadings continued. One motion, for instance, is titled, “Gov. Admits to Withholding Evidence, And Gives Support to Fathers Freeman Protections, And Secured Religious Beliefs, Rights, Priviliges, (sic) And Immunities Clause Constitutional Question Tort 17 USCA Sect. 101, Etc. Motion.”
“As a general matter, these people absolutely flood the courts with hundreds and hundreds of documents that actually have no basis in law,” said Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has tracked the movement and, along with the FBI, considers adherents a domestic terrorism threat. “It’s put an enormous strain on the judicial system.”
Such sovereign citizen tactics are a component of what the SPLC and many in law enforcement dub “paper terrorism.” Another common tactic identified with the movement: Carrying out vendettas by filing bogus liens on property owned by judges, prosecutors, police or other government officials and attorneys.
Sen. Thomas Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, said he’s aware of four Indianapolis Metropolitan Police officers and a judge in northern Indiana who’ve been victimized, and he believes there are bound to be others. “I think it’s imperative we do protect those people who are lawfully doing their jobs and being harassed by people because of some fluke in our law that allows them to,” he said.
Wyss and Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, introduced companion bills, Senate Bill 234 and House Bill 1054, giving the secretary of state the ability to refuse to accept filings or recordings that may be unauthorized or believed to be false or fraudulent. Wyss said he hopes final legislation will be amended to give that same ability to county recorders. As of Indiana Lawyer deadline, Steuerwald’s bill had been approved by the House of Representatives and moved to the Senate, and Wyss’ bill was awaiting a hearing before the Committee on Civil Law.
Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council Executive Director David Powell said the organization supports the legislation. “It’s not endemic, but anybody who’s had one of those liens or had to deal with those issues, it’s isolated, but when it does occur, it is a very big deal to them.”
Two people with direct ties to the sovereign citizens movement have been convicted in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana on charges of possession of false identification and possession of a firearm by a felon, a spokesman said. A third is charged with production of false identification documents.
Georgia last year passed a law making it a felony to file fraudulent liens against public officials or employees. The legislation offered by Steuerwald and Wyss contain no criminal provisions.
Wyss, who has worked on issues related to state and federal homeland security, said the measures were a direct reaction to activities of sovereign citizens. In a few cases, followers have resorted to violence. In 2010, a father and son, self-described as sovereign citizens, shot and killed two police officers in West Memphis, Ark. Officers stopped the car because it bore a phony Ohio license plate; the father and son were later killed in a shootout with police.
“Too often people think of terrorism as violent extremism coming from the Taliban or al-Qaida, when in fact we have homegrown violent extremists,” Wyss said.
Potok said after the West Memphis shooting, the SPLC sent 55,000 copies of a roll-call training video on sovereign citizens to its Intelligence Report subscribers who are in law enforcement, but that wasn’t nearly enough. “In addition to that, we got more than 35,000 more law enforcement requests for the DVD. I think that just speaks to how widespread this is,” Potok said.
“The danger to law enforcement is that it is difficult to spot an adherent of this group,” said Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law professor Shawn Marie Boyne, who teaches counter-terrorism courses. Sovereigns may carry bogus ID, use out-of-date language, and be belligerent or anti-Semitic, she said. But a movement historically rooted in white supremacy has gained a broader following.
“Today, members of the group are not confined to the demographics of the 1990s. They may be male or female, white, black, Hispanic, or Asian, young or old, college-educated or not,” she said. “They often cite the Bible, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and the Magna Carta as the basis for this alternative legal system. Countless courts have heard the claims and have dismissed them as lacking merit,” Boyne said.
Boyne said leaders conduct “America Can Be Free” and “Advanced Enforcement” seminars that pledge to free followers from debt. “They also aggressively use the Internet, including Facebook and YouTube, to upload videos of seminars as well as templates of sovereign citizen paperwork,” she said.
Economic hard times help explain the rise of a movement that Potok said is “shot through with hucksterism.” Promoters of sovereign citizen legal theories and related schemes that promise easy fixes abound.
“Basically the movement says you don’t have to pay taxes, you don’t have to obey most criminal laws, you can get out of credit card debt and you can stop the bank from foreclosing,” Potok said.
“This is a movement that promises something for nothing,” Potok said, “and that is why I think it is the most rapidly growing part of the radical right today.”
“There is a real danger,” Boyne said, “that extremist groups like these will gain new members when elected officials themselves make bold statements challenging the authority of the government.
“The loss of a political center and reasonable civic discourse helps to create political alienation. The growing extremism within government and claims that the actions of government officials are illegitimate may help fuel the rise of groups like this movement.”•