On Sunday, March 12, funeral services were held for Chase Allen who was shot and killed by police in Farmington, Utah during a traffic stop over a fake license plate. Mr. Allen identified as a so-called “sovereign citizen” and believed that he was not subject to the laws of Utah based on a flawed understanding of the U.S. Constitution and state laws.
The traffic stop which led to Mr. Allen’s death began because he was driving a vehicle with a license plate that read simply: “Utah, American State Citizen” and “Private Automobile Not For Hire” Once he was stopped, Mr. Allen refused to identify himself for a time. Eventually, he provided a passport but immediately said the passport wasn’t him. He repeatedly quoted nonsense about “traveling” instead of driving and various other absurdities asserted by the sovereign citizen movement. Eventually, when Mr. Allen was asked to get out of his vehicle, he pulled a gun from a holster at his side, and he was shot dead by police.
I watched the body cam footage of Mr. Allen’s fatal shooting, and it infuriated me. The officer acted professionally and tried very hard throughout the traffic stop to treat Mr. Allen with courtesy, but unfortunately, Mr. Allen had been led astray by a cult of conspiracy known as the sovereign citizen movement, and he ultimately died because of it.
Individuals who identify as sovereign citizens believe that many laws do not apply to them unless they give their consent to allow the government to have power over them. The belief is based on a false and skewed interpretation of several hundred-year-old British Common Law and an absurd twisting of various statutes and constitutional provisions. I even read a lawsuit in Fayette County last year filed by a sovereign citizen that cited the Magna Carta from the year 1215 as a basis for his court action.
Sovereign citizens often believe that they can use various procedures or loopholes and make themselves immune from the laws of society. Sometimes this means they write certain words on documents, and say particular phrases to law enforcement and government officials mistakenly believing that doing so will allow them to ignore laws, not pay bills, and avoid penalties for their crimes.
Interestingly, while sovereign citizens often believe that laws do not apply to them, they are also often more than happy to gum up the court system with ridiculous lawsuits full of utter nonsense. I have seen a few of these suits during my time as an attorney, and they are never successful. Worse yet, they cost the county and state money and time and eventually often end up costing sovereign citizens a fair chunk of change as well.
Followers of this confusing ideology think that they are above the laws which the rest of us must obey. When faced with the prospect of actually having police enforce the law these folks, like Mr. Allen, sometimes respond violently. In 2018, an individual who identified as a sovereign citizen in Wyoming attempted to teach his 3-year-old to drive on public streets. He was killed when police came to investigate, and he engaged in a shootout hitting one officer five times.
I honestly feel some sympathy for these individuals. They are taken in by lies they read on the internet, and most of these people really believe these absurdities. Unfortunately, the whole basis of the movement is fake. It is espoused by financial scheme promoters, tax protesters and conspiracy theorists, and none of it will help you avoid even a speeding ticket, let alone be immune to the laws of the government in general.
John Judkins is a Greenfield attorney.