by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Five members of the Morrison County Sheriff’s Department learned about the sovereign citizen movement during a winter sheriff’s conference.
A sovereign citizen is someone who believes that he or she is above all laws. They think they are answerable only to common law and are not subject to any statutes or proceedings at the federal, state or municipal levels.
The FBI considers sovereign-citizen extremists as comprising a domestic terrorist movement, according to www.fbi.gov. Sovereign citizens do not represent an anarchist group, nor are they a militia. Rather, they operate as individuals without established leadership and only come together in loosely affiliated groups to train, help each other with paperwork, or socialize and talk about their ideology.
“We participated in a training session on how to approach them, such as at a traffic stop or in a courtroom,” said Sheriff Michel Wetzel. “They were teaching our guys to keep our heads and be calm.”
In addition to Wetzel, attending the conference session were Chief Deputy Tom Ploof, Patrol Sergeant Shawn Larsen, Bailiff Jim Koetter and Screening Bailiff Jason Neuwirth.
“Sovereign citizens are becoming more and more vocal and we need to be aware of it,” Wetzel said. “They told us to know that sovereign citizens are videotaping us.”
Wetzel explained that sovereign citizens are becoming more prevalent. “We generally see it around here when they are in financial trouble, maybe losing their property or home. They try to say that their contract with the bank is not valid; that they do not have to pay their mortgage,” he said.
“The sovereign citizen movement is often misunderstood,” said Dr. Jarret Brachman of the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at North Dakota State University in Fargo. “Neither far-right nor far-left, this is a very small movement of individuals who feel as if they have a duty to resist most of the laws on the books, largely because they don’t see them as laws at all. Rather, sovereigns see the United States as having been infiltrated by foreign powers.”
According to Brachman, who gave the sheriff’s conference session, sovereign citizens believe it is their obligation as a true patriotic American to stop paying taxes and disobey supposedly unlawful rulings by an illegitimate government with the hope of someday overthrowing it and replacing it with one that adheres closer to the literal word of the Constitution.
“Sovereigns are rarely offensively violent. Rather, if they do become unruly, it tends to be against law enforcement at traffic stops or in court,” Brachman said. “Most of the time, however, they pose an enormous pain in the neck for county government officials who have to deal with their aggressive use of bogus legal filings and refusal to pay fines, taxes, registration fees, etc.
The sovereign movement does have deep roots in rural areas around the upper Midwest, said Brachman. This happened most notably with Gordon Kahl and the Posse Comitatus, which drew on the widespread anger and financial hardship in these areas during the 1980s.
Wetzel has run into more people in the movement in the last two years. “They become argumentative and use a regimented script being fed to them,” he said. “The tough thing about it is, they say some things that are very ‘American’ to us. A lot of their principles stem from our history.”
“A lot of folks listen to the rhetoric of sovereign citizens and they can’t disagree with some of it,” said Wetzel. “It’s gaining more and more traction.”
Sovereign citizens mix old English common law with modern constitutional law, Wetzel said. “There is truth in some of what they say.”
The law enforcement officers were told to be firm and get the job done when confronted with someone with sovereign citizen beliefs.