A group of people calling themselves “sovereign citizens” have decided that banks and governments cannot legally own property. They just…decided that that’s the case, and boy howdy are they sticking to it.
They’ve begun moving into unoccupied, bank-owned homes, changing the locks, and putting up “no trespassing” signs around the property. I probably shouldn’t have to tell you that these actions have no legal basis, and anyone who persists in illegally occupying a bank-owned home (yes, Virginia, banks can own property) will be forcefully evicted, and possibly arrested for trespassing.
Now, there have been other stories of homeless or otherwise destitute individuals and families moving into foreclosed homes temporarily. While I don’t condone such conduct, this isn’t comparable. Someone who temporarily occupies a foreclosed home to keep from freezing to death, knowing that what they’re doing is illegal, and presumably willing to accept the legal consequences, is very different from somebody who deliberately concocts a crackpot legal argument, then sanctimoniously occupies someone else’s property (having the gall to put up “no trespassing” signs, for example).
Crackpot groups like “sovereign citizens,” “freemen on the land,” and others have been around for a while. However, it seems like these groups have become more common in recent years. Or maybe they’re simply becoming more vocal, and getting more attention. We did, after all, see a brief spike in the activities of far-right militias during the Clinton years. Perhaps there’s just a certain group of people who get really riled up whenever we have a Democrat for a president, and who bristle at even the smallest expansion of federal power (real or imagined).
While these groups differ in their exact ideologies, they do share a common element: they firmly believe in bizarre legal theories, and base their actions on these theories, even though they have never been successfully used in court, and have no basis in constitutional, statutory, or case law.
While someone who has studied the law can usually recognize these legal arguments as ridiculous on their face, laypersons are sometimes taken in by them, because sometimes they seem intuitively reasonable, and if they’re correct (which they’re not), they would relieve individuals of a great deal of accountability to the law. And who hasn’t craved that every once in a while?
These “arguments” are numerous, but I’m going to discuss a few of the more common ones, and explain why they’re wrong.
Myth: An indictment/court summons/tax bill/parking ticket has my name in ALL CAPS. I don’t spell my name in all caps. Therefore, the legal document doesn’t actually address me, and I don’t have to respond to it.
Fact: I honestly can’t believe people still buy this one. The basic argument is that, because all the relevant court documents wrote your name in all caps, it actually addresses someone else, and you can’t be forced to obey the court order without violating your right to due process (which requires, among other things, that defendants be given notice of the crimes they’re charged with). Every court that has been presented with this argument has dismissed it out of hand, as patently frivolous. Sometimes, they’ll impose sanctions on parties who employ these frivolous arguments, if the court believes they should have known better. Honestly, do you think that, if this argument had any legal merit whatsoever, court documents would still list names of parties in all caps?
Fact: Yes, they can. Honestly, I don’t know how to put it more simply than this. Even if you believe with absolute certainty that there’s some secret code in the constitution, the bible, or whatever, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Founding Fathers/God/The Flying Spaghetti Monster never intended for banks to be able to own property, everyone else disagrees with you. So, like it or not, banks do have a legal property interest in the properties they foreclose, and the courts and police are going to enforce those rights.
Myth: I don’t have to pay taxes.
Fact: Yes, you do. If you think you’ve come up with some bombproof, ironclad, original legal argument that you think will get you off the hook come tax time, chances are someone else has already thought it up, and it’s failed. Just so you know, the income tax is constitutional, and all arguments to the contrary have been rejected as frivolous.
Myth: I can enjoy all the benefits of being a U.S. citizen, and squirm my way out of most of the responsibilities.
Fact: Really, that’s what all of these phony legal arguments are about – a desire to get something for nothing. Whether it involves getting a free house, or enjoying government services without paying taxes, these arguments are not rooted in some principled desire to protect individual liberty. It should go without saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
These are just a few of the baseless legal positions that fringe groups cling to. There are plenty of others, most of them equally ridiculous. If you really need legal advice, you should seek the assistance of a lawyer, not somebody wearing a sandwich board on the street.