Sovereign citizens not above the law

Keri Thornton | Daily Press

Law enforcement professionals say each and every person must abide by the laws and the claim of being a sovereign citizen doesn't make anyone immune to the law.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation considers a sovereign citizen an anti-government extremist who believes they are separate from the United States despite physically residing in the county.

The FBI has classified the organization as being a domestic terrorism movement where members believe they don't have to answer to government authorities, such as court, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments, or law enforcement.

When a person who declares themselves free of laws is pulled over or detained for breaking the law, the encounter could become unpredictable.

Tahlequah Police Chief Nate King said it's uncommon for his department to come across an individual who claims to be a sovereign citizen. However, every officer participates in an annual training that prepares them for an encounter.

"It's on our training regiment now and it's one we require everyone to go through," said King.

In 1971, the concept of a sovereign citizen originated in the Posse Comitatus movement as a teaching of minister William P. Gale. He identified the 14th amendment as the act that converted sovereign citizens into federal citizens.

A sovereign citizen will protest they are a free person, and are not subject to any local laws and are free of legal constraints, including taxes or fines.

Cherokee County Sheriff Jason Chennault echoed King and said the movement is something law enforcement officials don't see a lot in the area.

"We haven't had an encounter with someone claiming to be a sovereign citizen in quite awhile," said Chennault. "There used to be a guy around who claimed to be a part of a group and he never really gave us a lot of trouble."

The sheriff said the CCSO doesn't participate in a special training to deal with these specific members, but it is something that's discussed with deputies.

"There is no sovereign citizen. It's not reality and if you're going to be driving or living in the state of Oklahoma and the United States of America, you've got to abide by the laws just like everyone else does," said Chennault. "It doesn't matter what you belong to or what you think you belong to."

On April 20, Tahlequah Police Officer Matthew Frits pulled over a driver on Bertha Parker Bypass for a seat belt violation. Clayton Price Rowe quickly began filming Frits and asked him for his name and badge number.

Frits asked for Rowe's driver's license and proof of insurance, but Rowe continued to film the traffic stop while he read from a script of talking points on his phone.

"I just wish to inform you that I was not engaged in transportation -- I'm not commercial use of a highway. Are you aware that I have informed you of that?" Rowe asked. "I was engaged in my free right of travel."

The driver argued that since he wasn't arrested or detained, he didn't have to give the officer his information.

However, Frits warned Rowe many times that he could be arrested for obstruction since he refused to hand over his license and insurance while he was being "detained."

"For the record, no law is valid if it requires me in any way to waive any fundamentally protected rights in order to exercise any other right or alleged privilege and no law can convert the free exercise of any right into a crime," Rowe said.

Tahlequah Police Chief Nate King said some people have the misconception that being detained means they are handcuffed until an investigation is complete, and that is not the case.

"If you're stopped for running a stop sign or not wearing a seat belt, you are being detained," said King. "It may not be a custodial detention with handcuffs on but you are not free to go until the officer has completed that investigation."

Tahlequah Fire was called out to the incident and broke out Rowe's windows. Officers arrested him for resisting arrest and obstruction an officer.

While Rowe never called himself a sovereign citizen, he used jargon and phrases associated with the movement.

King said he was impressed with how much patience and poise Frits showed during that traffic stop.

He added while it's frustrating from the law enforcement perspective, officers showed great professionalism in that moment.

"There comes a point in time -- while airing on the side of caution -- it is typically a good stance to have and what we've seen nationally from sovereign citizens is that they can be violent," said King. "So, sometimes, too much patience just allows someone one more opportunity to become violent."

Other law enforcement agencies in the nation have advised their fellow officers to immediately call for backup when faced with a sovereign. The reason is some sovereigns will become violent during an encounter.

"It's not that they become violent, but it's more of being disobedient. It's almost frustrating to the point where they don't recognize law enforcement as an authority -- or the government in general," said King. "They have undeniable rights that government can't infringe upon and they are their own being that's free to do what they choose."

Chennault said each and every person must abide by the laws, and the claim of being a sovereign citizen doesn't make anyone immune to the law.

"They're not wanting to recognize that they have to live by the law because they've announced themselves," said Chennault. "If we come in contact with someone that claims that, we're going to treat them just like anyone else and we'll be as nice to them as we can, depending on how they treat us."

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