Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting ~ Community Matters
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Sovereign Citizens, Constitutional Sheriffs, and Domestic Terror Organizations
You can’t just make stuff up, folks.
April 12, 2023
Some Americans claim to be sovereign citizens, or constitutional sheriffs, or demand that our government designate some organizations as terrorists. The words “sovereign” “sheriff” and “terrorist” aren’t in the constitution. But our schools won’t teach this stuff because they don’t want you to know it.
There may be some tiny remote islands or bits of unclaimed land in the world, but they’re unclaimed because no one wants them. Even the remotest part of Antarctica is controlled by the 1959 International Antarctic Treaty. But you don’t live in those places. You live in the United States or somewhere else with a real, established society and government.
So, while you’re here, you really do have to tolerate the laws.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Sovereign citizens” believe that individual citizens are sovereign over, and independent of, the authority of federal and state governments. They claim to be exempt from our laws, or that the laws just don’t exist. But they sure do demand their constitutional rights when a law will benefit them. Just like crybabies who always want their own way.
Their beliefs are complex and their numbers incalculable. There is no central organization but there are common principles.
We usually don’t hear much about them until they get arrested and land in court for some reason.
And then they always lose. Because they’re always wrong.
In 2021, Darrell Brooks drove his car through a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He killed six people and injured dozens. In court, he refused a lawyer and claimed to be a sovereign citizen. Meanwhile, the hypocrite demanded his constitutional rights. He made all sorts of ridiculous claims. He was convicted of 76 various charges and is serving six life sentences for the homicides plus 762 years for the other offenses. But he still cites his sovereignty.
“Sovereigns” are right that the Constitution doesn’t address secondary issues. That is not its purpose. But this boils down to states’ rights. The Constitution’s Tenth Amendment says ”The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
So even though the Constitution doesn’t say so, states can regulate driving; health, safety, and building codes; businesses; abortions; pandemic masking and social distancing; and all sorts of things. And every state legislature has enacted such laws.
This description sounds ridiculous because it is. Wherever you go, regardless of your citizenship or residency, you are subject to the local laws.
There is no such thing as a sovereign citizen.
There are 3,081 sheriffs in the United States. In 2011, former Arizona sheriff
Richard Mack founded the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.
Approximately 300 sheriffs call themselves “Constitutional Sheriffs”.
There's also a National Sheriff's Association for the rest of them.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Constitutional sheriff movement arose in the 1970s. Its adherents believe that the county controls all land within its borders and that the sheriff, as the only elected law enforcement official, is the ultimate authority, that sheriffs aren’t accountable to anyone. They think they get to decide what laws to enforce and when to do it. That’s interesting, since all federal, state, and local employees swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. Hmmm. If they really believe that they are omnipotent, then why not just refuse to swear that oath to the Constitution? Because then they won't get the job. That's why.
Naturally, state and federal officials object to this stance. The positions created some interesting and tense disputes when “sovereign citizens” refused to follow masking and social distancing orders during the COVID pandemic.
Since the word “sheriff” does not appear in the Constitution, the Tenth Amendment covers the creation and regulation of sheriffs. Sheriffs exist because the states authorize them. And they have whatever powers their state constitutions and laws give them.
Such eminent organizations as the Marshall Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Georgetown University, the Texas Tribune, the Anti-Defamation League, the Washington Post, and the American Bar Association agree:
There is no such thing as a constitutional sheriff.
DOMESTIC TERRORIST ORGANIZATIONS
The United States has a process for designating foreign entities as terrorist organizations and has done so for 68 organizations. But we have no law permitting us to apply that title to any domestic group, and we do not do so.
Legally, there is no such thing as a domestic terrorist organization.
Yet every week someone or other wants the federal government to label one group or another as domestic terrorists. Candidates for this title include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Rifle Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, The Ku Klux Klan, Black Lives Matter, various private fanatical militia groups, white supremacists, Greenpeace, Operation Rescue, and even antifa. That’s quite a goal, since antifa isn’t an organization; it’s an adjective. So much for third grade English class.
While no such designation exists, our government isn’t ignoring the concept. One of President Joe Biden’s first official acts was to instruct the White House national security team to review the state of American domestic terrorism, our response to it, and potential future actions. On June 15, 2021, the White House published its Fact Sheet on its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.
That strategy is too complex for our purpose here, but if we really want to specify domestic terrorists, we have to define the term first, and then create a process for applying the label. Then we can follow that process to designate domestic organizations. But be careful what you wish for.
As Franesca Laguardia notes in her 2020 Northwestern University Law Review article, “Unless it is carefully limited, a domestic terrorism statute is likely to criminalize low level political disruption as well as the violent attacks proponents seek to respond to.”
Until then, while domestic terrorists certainly do exist, there is no such thing as a domestic terror organization.
Sovereign citizens, constitutional sheriffs, and domestic terror designations are American fables. You’re always subject to a government. If you don’t like its rules, you can use your First Amendment power to lobby your legislators to make the changes you want. There are established processes for making those changes. Learn them.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Read the Constitution
Southern Poverty Law Center: Sovereign Citizens Movement
NPR: Judge sentences man to life in prison for Waukesha Christmas parade attack
Stay at Home and Social Distancing Orders Are Constitutional
Southern Poverty Law Center: Constitutional Sheriffs
Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association
National Sheriffs Association
Lawfareblog.com: What Does a "Terrorist" Designation Mean?
The White House: FACT SHEET: National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism
Considering a Domestic Terrorism Statute and Its Alternatives. By Francesca Laguardia. Northwestern University Law Review. First Quarter, 2020.
ACLU: How The USA Patriot Act Redefines "Domestic Terrorism"
US State Department: Foreign Terrorist Organizations
Learn How To Lobby