COA upholds denial of pro se rights to ‘sovereign citizen’

The Indiana Court of Appeals has affirmed the termination of a man’s self-representation after determining he engaged in deliberately obstructive behavior that threatened to undermine the proceedings of his case by claiming to be a "sovereign citizen."

In August 2016, Yusuf Hotep-El was charged with possession of cocaine and two counts of possession of a narcotic drug, all as Level 5 felonies; Level 6 felony possession of a controlled substance; Class A misdemeanor driving while suspended; Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana, and; was alleged to be a habitual offender. Though initially appointed counsel, Hotep-El was granted permission to represent himself in February 2017.  But at a hearing the following April, the Marion Superior Court terminated Hotep-El’s self-representation, finding his abundant inappropriate filings and his statements and behavior in court raised concerns regarding his mental fitness.

After a psychiatric examination, Hotep-El was found competent to stand trial and was appointed counsel. The proceedings continued and in January 2018, the state dismissed the driving while suspended count and a jury found Hotep-El guilty on all remaining counts. He was sentenced to an aggregate of 10 years executed.

On appeal, Hotep-El argued the trial court improperly terminated his self-representation. However, the appellate court noted that although he had a right to defend himself, it was “not a license to abuse the dignity of the courtroom.”

In upholding the termination of Hotep-El’s pro se rights, the Court of Appeals noted that between July 2017 and February 2018, Hotep-El filed several pro se documents, even after he was appointed counsel. Some of those documents were entitled “Averment of Jurisdiction – Quo Warranto,” “Affidavit of Fact – Writ of Discovery” and “Affidavit of Error,” and several copies were sent to the United Nations, International Criminal Court, International Court of Justice, Interpol, the president of the United States, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Justice Department.

Further, many of Hotep-El’s filings contained the heading “The Moorish National Republic Federal Government Northwest Africa” and “The Moorish Divine and National Movement of the World.” Discovery during the psychiatric examination concluded Hotep-El was a follower of a set of fringe political beliefs known as the sovereign citizen movement, and the appellate court noted sovereign citizen litigants are typically unwilling to cooperate with the proceedings and counsel and attempt to frustrate court proceedings.

“Once the court was informed that Hotep-El was found competent, it was clear that his filings, statements, and behavior that disrupted and delayed the proceedings were not disruptions related to an inability to understand the proceedings or to self-representation without a legal education; rather, they were deliberate and calculated tactics,” Senior Judge Ezra Friedlander wrote Tuesday. “Further, the trial court’s decisions were based, not on conjecture, but on firsthand observation of Hotep-El’s behavior each time he was present in court and with every filing.

We thus conclude that given these facts it was not improper for the trial court to decline to reinstate Hotep-El’s pro se status when his deliberate obstructive behavior did and further threatened to undermine the proceedings and compromise the court’s ability to maintain order and efficiency of its courtroom and caseload,” Friedlander wrote.  

The case is Yusuf Hotep-El v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-477.


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