Deputies were prepared for the worst as they stood by in a Spokane County courtroom earlier this month during routine hearings for mostly low-level felonies.
Their focus was on one of the more benign cases – possession and distribution of marijuana.
But it wasn’t the nature of the allegations that got their attention. It was the defendant, a self-proclaimed “sovereign” who doesn’t consider himself a citizen of the United States even though he was born and raised here.
Adrian B. Shannon, 30, is among a growing number of people who question the legitimacy of federal, state and local government agencies and employ a series of legal maneuvers they believe exempt them from driver’s licenses and birth certificates, paying taxes, or even criminal charges.
“People call it a movement, but it’s individuals, literally sovereigns, that are all learning, ‘Hey we don’t have to put up with these ridiculous laws, because we are the government,’ ” Shannon said.
As the number of sovereigns increases, government officials are taking notice and trying to prepare, particularly after the shooting deaths of two police officers in Arkansas by a sovereign follower. Although no regional breakdowns are available, experts estimate the sovereign movement has about 300,000 followers nationally, and its popularity – fueled by seminars and videos – is growing.
The FBI considers sovereigns to be potential anti-government terrorists.
“It’s certainly something we’re definitely concerned about,” said Frank Harrill, agent in charge at the FBI’s Spokane office. “I don’t want to criminalize the belief system. But clearly, individuals who espouse and adhere to this ideology have in the past and continue in some instances to act out violently.”
Last month, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office held a training seminar on hate crimes that included a brief presentation on the sovereign movement.
Shannon contends officials are overreacting. In his court hearing recently, he managed to irritate a Superior Court judge with a series of questions, but he never became violent in the heavily secured courtroom. Sovereign beliefs, though complicated and unusual, are rooted in history and don’t call for violence, said Shannon.
“These people can be bloody dangerous,” said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based nonprofit that tracks extremist groups.
Reliance on ‘paper terrorism’
Law enforcement officials from across the region gathered at the sheriff’s training center in Spokane Valley last month for an all-day seminar by Joe Roy, an investigator with the Southern Poverty Law Center. The focus was hate groups, which Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said are on the rise locally, but it included a talk on the sovereign movement.
Roy showed photos of local residents believed to be involved. The training has drawn heavy criticism from ultraconservative groups worried about government profiling, Knezovich said.
State Rep. Matt Shea attended the seminar, Knezovich said.
Knezovich added he’s long known of the presence of sovereigns in the region. Just last month, he was subpoenaed to appear in traffic court by a sovereign contesting a speeding ticket. Knezovich said he simply was asked under oath whether he had taken an oath of office, which he testified that he had. The speeding ticket was upheld.
“It was just the oddest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he said.
Knezovich had been advised of Shannon and his courtroom tactics before Shannon drew the ire of Superior Court Judge Michael Price on June 1. The jail’s transport team requested extra security for Shannon’s hearing.
In the courtroom, Shannon questioned the judge and the legitimacy of the court docket after being asked to approach the podium for his arraignment.
“I’m not the Mr. Shannon named on the docket,” Shannon said in court, referring to a common contention among sovereigns that names written in all capital letters – as they’re commonly listed in court documents – represent a government-assigned, corporate entity rather than an individual.
“Well, whatever your name is, sir, get up here,” Price said.
“May I retain all my rights?” Shannon asked.
“Sir, get up here or you’re going to jail,” Price said. The unusual exchange was brief – prosecutors have not yet filed charges against Shannon, so Price told him he may be summoned to court later. He and friends left the courthouse without incident as deputies followed.
Shannon, who says he has always paid his taxes, believes he can beat criminal charges by employing a series of legal maneuvers that some experts on extremist beliefs call “paper terrorism” – filing liens and other documents against everyone involved in their arrest and prosecution. It essentially involves using nuisance tactics to make administration of legal proceedings against sovereigns so cumbersome that government officials deem it too costly and time-consuming to continue.
Shannon, for example, argues that he’s operating under admiralty law, which is supposed to govern interactions between private and international entities. He filed a 35-page, self-prepared document in Spokane County Superior Court shortly after his May 17 arrest that demands a $1.9 billion payment in silver from court and law enforcement officials involved in the search of his Spokane Valley apartment and his subsequent arrest. The document states that failure to respond is considered an acceptance of the contract.
Shannon said he doesn’t expect to be paid. Rather, he expects the document will lead to his charges being dismissed, if they are even filed.
Otherwise, the county could find itself spending time and money defending against a breach-of-contract suit he plans to file, regardless of the case’s legal merit.
“I basically plan on costing the city and county so much money that it’s not economical to pursue this,” Shannon said.
Experts say the filing has no legal basis. Superior Court Judge Sam Cozza, who authorized the search of Shannon’s apartment, said he hasn’t given the filing much thought.
Dealing with sovereigns in court “isn’t that much different from what we do with anybody who’s a little bit excitable or different,” Cozza said.
Contact with sovereigns
Last month’s law enforcement training seminar on sovereigns included a video by the Southern Poverty Law Center featuring West Memphis, Ark., Police Chief Bob Paudert, whose son and another officer were shot to death during a traffic stop involving a father and son who espoused sovereign beliefs. The incident was featured in a recent “60 Minutes” report.
The driver of the car, Jerry Kane, had handed the officer a fake sovereign driver’s license. Paudert said his son and the other officer were confused by the document. Had they been trained on how to recognize so-called sovereign citizens, they may have been more aware, Paudert said in the DVD.
Shannon, however, said he doesn’t believe in violence.
“I’m a nice guy – I don’t mean any harm to anyone,” he said. “I don’t want to come across as crazy.” He said his views could take days to explain, but that they are based on history and legal research.
He criticized the recent “60 Minutes” report, which included an interview with a self-proclaimed sovereign citizen who said he believes he can shoot police officers and politicians. Shannon and friends compare the fear of violence among sovereigns with the belief that all Muslims are terrorists – it’s a stereotype that isn’t true.
Shannon said he began researching sovereign beliefs and law after serving six years in the Air Force, including time in Iraq. “I saw what our government is doing and I saw what it’s capable of, and I can’t be a part of that,” he said. “I’m not anti-government. I’m anti-corporate government.”
Knezovich said he realizes not everyone espousing sovereign beliefs is prone to violence. But he said their association with a movement that has produced cop killers raises eyebrows.
“In any group you have your extreme elements, be it left, right or center,” he said. “It’s usually the extreme element that gives the entire group a bad name. It’s just like any other situation: One person may not be violent, but the next person may decide to be violent.”
Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said his organization researched sovereigns following the Arkansas police slayings and has distributed more than 75,000 DVDs on the movement across the country.
“We just felt that cops were in danger and we should try to do something,” he said. “What happened was we got an absolutely amazing level of demand for that video. Virtually every police department we’ve talked to has had some type of contact with sovereign citizens.”