Outside a Stop and Shop in Mesquite, Texas, Scott Richardson was stopped for having no front license plate. The rear window of his vehicle was painted with the proclamation “EARTH is FLAT.”
When the officer who pulled him over asked for a driver’s license, Richardson instead handed a custom document declaring he has a “right to travel.” The officer immediately called for a supervisor. He was dealing with a sovereign citizen.
Videos of “sovereign citizens” at traffic stops are viral YouTube sensation, pulling in millions of views each.
In another such video, a woman shouts that her partner is an “article four free inhabitant,” as her partner is arrested for driving without a license. As the officer calmly explains that she must leave the car so that it can be towed, she cites her right to remain seated as listed in the Articles of Confederation.
The U.S. hasn’t been governed by the articles since it was replaced by the Constitution.
The growing sovereign citizens movement is now in the hundreds of thousands, according to Mark Pitcavage with the Anti-Defamation League. Sovereign citizens believes the United States government is totally illegitimate and swear off their willingness to be governed in opposition to what’s actually legal. Most sovereigns resist local authority through civil disobedience and long arguments, while a others end up brutally killing police officers in sudden ambushes — most famously in 2010 when a sovereign citizen and his son killed two police officers in West Memphis, Arkansas.
The many videos posted online often end with sovereign citizens being tased or arrested. Members of the movement just don’t typically get their way when they face down judges and police. However, a new bill, pre-filed in November in the New Hampshire state legislature and put forward by an elected sovereign citizen, would protect sovereigns during legal crusades against the U.S. government.
The bill was introduced by 85-year-old Richard Marples, a New Hampshire legislator who’s been advocating for the sovereign citizen movement as an elected official since the late 1990s. Marples was arrested in 2016, like many sovereign citizens, for driving without a valid license, and has since tried to introduce a law to effectively abolish vehicle registration entirely in the state of New Hampshire.
His latest bill, which will come up for a vote in January, would impose $10,000 fines on anyone failing to disclose the complete terms of every so-called “contract” entered into with a “sovereign inhabitant.” It also protects the ability of sovereigns to commit what is often called “paper terrorism.” This is when sovereigns file dozens of false legal claims in order to force judges, police and other government officials to fight bogus claims in court for as long as possible.
One retired judge from upstate New York, Bob Vosper, said in an interview that he was terrorized for years after a sovereign citizen arrived in his court over a speeding ticket. The sovereign filed $522 million in phony liens, a kind of legal filing that claims the defendant owes a debt. Vosper said he and his clerks spent years collating the false charges filed against him, building a portfolio of bogus claims over two feet thick.
“I slept with a gun under my pillow for two years,” Vosper said. “I still probably have a little PTSD from it. I won’t sit in a restaurant unless my back’s to the wall, so I can see the door.”
Whether or not the New Hampshire bill passes, researchers who study right-wing extremism warn that anti-government movements are growing. The Pitcavage told Mic that the marriage of social media with periods of sudden economic instability, such as the 2008 financial crisis, drives more people into far right movements.
“The movement, through its ideology, tells people who to blame and promises them a way out,” Pitcavage said. “When you’re a drowning person and someone throws you something round, you’re going to assume it’s a lifesaver and you’re going to reach for it.”