Courts brace for 'Sovereign Citizens' cases
Their targets are lawyers, judges and other public officials and administrators who don't give them the answers or outcomes they want.
"Some call them 'paper terrorists,'" said Jude Del Preore, trial court administrator in Burlington County, where self-declared sovereign citizens have begun making their mark after doing so elsewhere in the country.
Their preferred tactics, officials say, are to inundate the court system with lawsuits seeking fictitious reparations from government administrators and officials, unfounded property liens that can tie up sales and wreak havoc on credit and unsubstantiated ethics complaints intended to taint lawyers' and judges' reputations.
Sovereign Citizens, a loosely based organization classified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat, has been gaining momentum since the late 2000s, according to observers. Many sovereign citizens believe that state and federal governments are illegitimate, and, therefore, so are their laws. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit civil-rights organization, the movement has approximately 100,000 hard-core members across the country.
Because they don't recognize the authority of government or most law enforcement agencies, many sovereigns refuse to pay taxes and don't register their vehicles or get driver's licenses. When prosecuted, they often retaliate by forcing officials to clear liens, answer accusations in lawsuits and defend themselves against charges of treason and malfeasance.
Courthouse staff statewide were recently sent information about the sovereign movement so they would be able to recognize lawsuits and liens filed by sovereign citizens.
"We are in our infancy stages, and we're still figuring out our scope," said Del Preore, who heads a committee formed recently to deal with the problem. The committee is composed of state judiciary staff, state police and representatives from the state Attorney General's Office. It will eventually develop recommendations to courthouse staffs statewide on how to deal with sovereign-related issues, he said.
"There are references they use. 'Esquire,' 'Admiralty,' certain vernacular," said Assignment Judge Donald Volkert, who heads Superior Court in Passaic County. "I think that there is a concern that they are growing. Obviously, it's not unique to New Jersey, as there are other states that have adopted legislation to deal with the issues created and presented by these groups. But I am happy to tell you that so far, we don't have any experience with them."
Bergen County Trial Court Administrator John Goodman said there was one open criminal prosecution he was aware of in his vicinity involving sovereigns that arose from a foreclosure action.
"Aside from that, it really hasn't become an issue here," Goodman said.
But it may only be a matter of time, Del Preore warned.
"We noticed in Burlington that we were getting an upswing in the intake of complaints filed by Sovereign Citizens. A lot are filed outside the norm, like criminal complaints against mortgage companies. They will file things called 'affidavits of truth,' or 'notices of negative averment,' all of which don't make much sense to the legal community. We were getting more and more things of this nature," Del Preore said.
"Some of them we would not accept, because we don't take criminal complaints at the civil clerk's counter. Those are either filed in municipal court or in our criminal division. So we would reject the filing -- and end up with double the complaints back," Del Preore said.
As these filings started snowballing, tempers began to flare. "With the volume, we then started to notice that they would deal with our staff in a -- I'm not going to say 'hostile' but -- strong manner, insisting that they take these complaints," Del Preore said. "So we started doing some research and realized we were not the only jurisdiction dealing with this."
Court sources pointed to at least eight lawsuits filed in Superior Court in Burlington County by plaintiffs believed to be sovereign citizens. The targets of the suits range from the Willingboro Township Municipal Court, to various municipal police officers, Superior Court and Municipal Court judges, the courthouse ombudsman in Burlington, Gov. Chris Christie, former state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, who also served briefly as U.S. senator, and others.
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