On their surface, the claims made by Douglas Leguin in his 911 call last Monday are almost comical. His name is Dougie Doug, and he has seceded from the United States established Doug-e-stan, an independent republic, because "shit's too screwed up." That he'd taken over a house that wasn't his and tried to lure first responders into an ambush was reprehensible, but his rhetoric was funny on first hearing. Almost immediately though, media reports tied Leguin to the Sovereign Citizen movement, which placed his ramblings in a more serious light.
The FBI classifies Sovereign Citizens as extremists who are part of a movement that commonly commits acts of domestic terrorism. Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh's accomplice in the bombing of Oklahoma City's Federal Building, considered himself a member of the movement, as did Jerry and Joe Kane, a father and son who killed a pair of West Memphis, Arkansas police officers before dying in a shootout with police.
Despite the notoriety afforded the movement by the like of Nichols and the Kanes, much of the Sovereigns' belief set remains essentially inscrutable. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the basic tenet of their beliefs is that it is up to the sovereign citizen to decide which laws he or she will follow. This is because, they assert, the common law under which the country was founded was secretly replaced by a new government system based on admiralty law. Under the common law, the sovereigns assert they were free men or women, whereas they have been enslaved under admiralty law. This change is confirmed by, among other things, the fact that flags in courtrooms have a gold fringe, an accouterment meant for naval flags. Sovereigns reassert the rights they say they were provided by the common law, such as not paying taxes.
Traditionally, people have been attracted to the Sovereign Citizen movement due to financial or legal trouble, says JJ MacNab, a journalist who has chronicled the movement extensively for the Southern Poverty Law Center and publications like Forbes. They seek a magic bullet, a painless way to escape their troubles. They often begin to use a tactic called "paper terrorism," -- filing hundreds, or even thousands, of documents in otherwise simple legal proceedings. Sometimes, new adherents experience some initial success. Maybe a cop doesn't show up when a Sovereign contests a ticket, or maybe an opposing attorney fails to keep up with the mountain of paper work filed in a case. Eventually though, every single time, the strategies fail and the Sovereign winds up with a massive debt bill or in prison. Rather than acknowledging that they've been duped, Sovereigns often conclude that a conspiracy has been perpetrated against them by the federal government, MacNab says. That's when Sovereign Citizens become their most dangerous.
"If you truly that the government is committing this great big whopper of a crime, violence is really the only answer," she says.
The thing is, MacNab says, that's not what happened with Leguin.
Outside of the 911 call, nothing Leguin has said lines up with the movement. MacNab has a set of markers that she uses to identify Sovereigns; Leguin has only met two of them in his public comments, like this jailhouse interview with KXAS:
"Usually, when I look at a Sovereign, even if they don't have an internet presence, I can get nine or 10 markers, I got two for this guy. My guess is, he's faking it or there's something else going on," MacNab says. Leguin is, for instance, far too liberal to be in line with traditional Sovereign beliefs. There's also no record of Leguin having engaged in any legal system paper terrorism.
Leguin instead went straight for initiating a confrontation with authorities, something that fits into a recent trend of violent actions backed by unsophisticated Sovereign Citizen rhetoric.
"The Sovereign stuff is different this year, I think they're mainstreaming right now because of Cliven Bundy. I think what happened with Cliven Bundy is that he got so much attention and he attracted so many people on the internet and in person that he's recruited all these new people that no longer care about paper terrorism and filing lots of court documents, they've gone right to the pointing of guns. They've absorbed part of the Sovereign stuff, but not all the detail stuff," MacNab says. "What's happening now is, it's moving away from a bunch of guys trying to play lawyer to people who want to take on the U.S. government or state or local government. It's changed dramatically."
In June, Jerad and Amanda Miller, a couple claiming affiliation with the movement, killed two police officers in a Las Vegas pizza shop before heading to a nearby Wal-Mart and proclaiming that a revolution was starting before killing a bystander who tried to intervene.
Alfred Adask says that the actions of people like the Millers and Leguin are based on selfish misconstruction of Sovereign Citizen dogma.
"There's a lot of people, I won't say there's a lot but there are some, who claim to be sovereigns and they're not sovereigns, they're anarchists, they think this is just a get out of jail free card," he says.
Adask lives in Garland and has been a leading voice for the Sovereign Citizen movement for almost 30 years. He's the former publisher of Anti-Shyster magazine and hosts an internet radio show dedicated to tax and sovereignty topics and is the brains behind many of the movement's key legal theories.
"We're being hyped up as if we are out there gun-toting nuts who are trying to shoot everybody. Mostly what we're interested in are dictionaries and studying the law and reading and writing. I've got a rifle that I've never fired, and it's the only one I've got," Adask says. "We've got more in common with monks than we do with violent revolutionaries."
Nevertheless, Adask advocates a robust reading of the Second Amendment.
"I may have some rights under the constitution, I may even have some duties under the constitution, but I don't have any powers, the powers go to the people who work for the government, the president and the congress and the senate and the bureaucrats and so on, they have powers, I do not. Powers are for the people in the government," Adask says. "The purpose of those first 10 amendments was to prevent misconstruction or abuse, that's their language. They use the word misconstruction, they use the word abuse, prevent misconstruction or abuse of the powers of the constitution. Well, if that's the fundamental purpose behind the Second Amendment, what's the Second Amendment for? It's intended to shoot the SOBs if they get too far out of line."