What is Paper Terrorism? Anti-Gov't Nuts File Tens of Thousands of False Docs as "Sovereign Citizens"
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How do you stop one anti-government extremist from coordinating a trillion dollar “paper terrorism” scheme involving a raft of false financial documents, or deal with another who sues prosecutors for allegedly conspiring against him by using poor grammar?
This is the question that state governments and federal agencies are faced with, ever since a surge of people who consider themselves “sovereign citizens” began acting on their belief that all aspects of law and government are illegitimate. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that in 2011 there were approximately 100,000 “hard-core” believers in sovereign citizen ideology, though it’s a tough number to nail down because the movement is so disparate. For the same reason — and because, by their nature, members of the movement don’t believe in laws — it’s also tough to draft legislation to specifically target those crimes favored by sovereign citizens.
Some of those crimes involve filing fraudulent tax returns, liens and foreclosures, frequently known as “paper terrorism.” In fact, insofar as the sovereign citizen movement has leaders, it’s in the form of so-called “gurus” who peddle materials on how to conduct these schemes. One prominent sovereign leader, Tim Turner — who refers to himself as “president” of the “Republic for the united States of America” [sic] — was recently convicted for “attempting to pay taxes with fictitious financial instruments,” among other things. In addition to his own alleged tax crimes, Turner also purveyed a “series of seminars claiming he could help his clients get out of paying mortgages, credit cards and income tax bills using a series of sovereign tricks,” the SPLC reports.
Another sovereign citizen, David Russell Myrland, he of the particularly bizarre grammar-based conspiracy lawsuit, spent around 20 years illegally practicing law and teaching others to cheat on federal income taxes. In 2012, though, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 months in prison for threatening to kidnap a mayor in Washington state.
These cases sometimes take years to build, and they don’t address the problems that arise with the more common sovereign practice of filing false tax liens (charges imposed on property to ensure tax payments) against public officials, sometimes worth millions of dollars. Usually, these liens are left undiscovered until the official in question goes to take out a mortgage or a loan and finds their credit effectively ruined. Most of the time, sovereign citizens can exploit loopholes in laws that require clerks to process the filings without asking questions.
One way states are addressing the issue is by passing legislation to close that loophole. Indiana is the latest of at least 15 other states to pass a law to allow clerks and state officials to reject fraudulent filings before they can do any damage.
Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, a Republican, told Salon that Indiana’s new law aims to stop two typical types of filings: harassment and “straw man” filings. Harassment filings are those used “usually for a retaliatory purpose,” Lawson said, against an elected official who has confronted the sovereign citizen in some way. In Indiana, there have been two recent harassment filings made against federal judges and one against a local mayor, amounting to millions of dollars in fraudulent liens. “Straw man filings” simply express a sovereign citizen’s contention that the government is illegitimate, and are easy to identify because they are often in all caps and interspersed with colons, make multiple references to the Bible or the Constitution, and generally contain noticeably odd language and punctuation.
In the past, Lawson explained, her office would be able to identify these fraudulent filings, but they “couldn’t question the content” and were still required to process them. At best, the filings clog up the system. At worst, they can seriously damage an official’s finances. “The most effective way to stop these filings is to do it preventively,” Lawson said.