What is a sovereign citizen?
On March 1, a Farmington police officer spotted an unusual, illegitimate license plate on a blue BMW. A traffic stop ensued, ending in a hail of gunfire that killed 25-year-old Chase Allan, who police say was reaching for a gun as officers attempted to pull him from the car.
Farmington Police Chief Eric Johnsen told reporters on Wednesday the license plate in question was a “sovereign” plate that is not legitimate in any state. Video from KUTV news shows what appears to be a license plate on the back of Allan’s car with a Title 4 flag, an iteration of the American flag with red, vertical stripes. The flag is a common symbol among sovereign citizens.
Sovereign citizens belong to a fringe political movement that believes the federal government holds no jurisdiction over them and that they do not have to abide by U.S. or state laws.
The FBI lists the group as a domestic terrorist movement, and describes them as “a loose network of individuals.”
“This group maintains that the Constitution of the United States provides for the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that means the right to travel freely, and without restriction,” said Greg Skordas, a lawyer and former Democrat candidate for Utah attorney general. “This is somewhat true if a person is walking down the street. But our Constitution has repeatedly been defined to indicate that to operate a motor vehicle on a road, the driver must meet certain criteria.”
‘At the very least, they are unpredictable’
Their movement emphasizes decentralized freedom, and most sovereign citizens will profess that they simply want to be left alone. Richard Piatt with the Utah Attorney General’s Office says the office hasn’t had any recent or noteworthy interactions with the group in the state, although they do have a presence.
“It pops up in an as-needed basis. If there’s an encounter with someone, we’ll handle the case accordingly,” he said. “... But there’s not an organized group that’s being tracked, or anything like that.”
However, sovereign citizens have been at the heart of several violent crimes around the country, and the Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as a group that will use a “variety of conspiracy theories and falsehoods to justify their beliefs and their activities, some of which are illegal and violent.”
In 2010, a father and son murdered two Arkansas police officers with a rifle when they were pulled over near West Memphis. And in 2018, Travis Reinking killed four people in a mass shooting at a Waffle House in Nashville, Tennessee. Perpetrators in both crimes had ties to the sovereign citizen ideology.
“If someone is living their life according to that philosophy and they don’t feel like they’re subject to any gun laws or restrictions, they will have this attitude that they can defend themselves and that they know best how to govern themselves. So if they are stopped by a police officer, they are going to act accordingly,” said Piatt.
“At the very least, they are unpredictable. If they are confronted by the police, that’s just activating their core beliefs,” he said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there to be hundreds of thousands of sovereign citizens.
‘I am not giving you jurisdiction’
It’s unclear whether he identified with the group, but in the newly released police body camera footage, Allan can be seen giving textbook sovereign citizen responses to the officer during the traffic stop. In its video breakdown shared with media Wednesday, Farmington police say Allan “immediately begins asserting his independence from the law.”
Skordas says Allan’s interaction with officers comes straight from the “Sovereign Citizen Handbook,” which includes things like “Don’t roll the window down more than 2 (inches),” “Don’t identify yourself,” “Don’t acknowledge the authority of the police” and “Maintain that you are not subject to their Jurisdiction.”
It also claims that as a sovereign citizen, you are not required to obtain a drivers license, insurance or registration.
“I don’t need registration and I don’t answer questions,” Allan immediately responded to police during the traffic stop, speaking through a cracked window, while filming the interaction.
Moments later, he tells the officer that he is not required to follow U.S. code.
“Sir, Utah code, United States code, is a corporate policy in which you have to be contracted in to be required to follow it. Unless you can provide me a contract with my wet ink signature saying that I’m required to follow it, then ...” he says, before the officer cuts him off, and Allan becomes inaudible.
“I am not giving you jurisdiction ... do not detain. You are not allowed to stop me,” Allan says, before he’s again interrupted by the officer. He then refuses, twice, when asked to get out of the car.
“I am not required to. If you try and force me, we’re going to have an issue,” Allan says. Seconds later, the police footage shows officers attempting to pull him from the vehicle — that’s when one of the officers yells “gun, gun, gun, gun” followed by a barrage of about 20 gunshots.
“Based on what I see, I see a manipulation of that holster, a movement of that holster. But I can’t clearly see a firearm from the angle that the camera is,” Johnsen said.