Who’s in charge here?
This is America, after all. Land of the free. Our ancestors fled life under a crown for the ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness unfettered by tyranny among all those amber waves of grain and majestic purple mountains.
We learn this in elementary school, tracing the curling script of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, flipping the history textbook pages to find paintings of dour men with puffy hair and short pants circling a desk littered with papers, books, and a quill. You can practically hear the capital F’s when we say “Founding Fathers.”
The United States was born from a revolutionary spirit, which inflames hearts—even if not everyone thinks the nation exists anymore.
Blame the Civil War. There are other candidates for what brought us to where we are today, but the brother-against-brother battle is often cited as a breaking point in more ways than one.
The idea is this: The fight killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers, as well as the union itself. The United States brought to life by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the rest died when the Southern states seceded, and a stitched-together corporation, not a newly reunited and resurrected nation, rose from the smoky battlefields of Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Antietam.
Since then, the argument goes, the government has been operating under a corporate charter, and its laws essentially apply only to its employees. Anyone living under the assumption that U.S. life went on as usual after the 1860s and ’70s is buying into the system. From California to Florida, Maine to Alaska, people are willingly subjecting themselves to an operating system that doesn’t truly have that much authority over them. It calls to mind the line from The Eagles’ “Hotel California”: “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.”
A local window into this alternative history, if you will, opened when Orcutt resident Jeff Lind was charged with intimidating a police officer in late 2010. Lind disputed the facts of the case, and in his defense, he began to point out to the courts obscure case laws and historical precedents he hoped would show that so-called public servants actually violated his guaranteed rights in the way they arrested and charged him.
The courts didn’t buy it.
Though the misdemeanor charge was ultimately dropped, Lind is now facing felony charges related to his defense, which involved accusing the police and district attorney of kidnapping him and claiming $77 million in damages against Judge Kay Kuns, who was initially overseeing his intimidation case.
Lind had help from Tom Murphy, a Central Coast resident who created and runs the “National Standards Enforcement Agency,” the website that says it’s intended to, among other goals, “enable us to take back control of our government.”
For his efforts to help Lind, Murphy is also facing felony charges in Santa Barbara County for allegedly filing false claims against a Superior Court judge. He believes in the corporation theory and claims that “true law” ended with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
“The people have superior jurisdiction as a member of the executive branch of government,” Murphy said. “We, the people, this is our country. We call the shots. The government we create and establish—they don’t have any jurisdiction to come at us because they’re inferior.”
Murphy referred to California Govt. Code Section 11120, also known as the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act, and the Ralph M. Brown Act, which state in part: “The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”
While Lind was in court in Santa Barbara for his now-dismissed misdemeanor, Murphy leaned over to a reporter in the gallery and whispered: “It’s taken us this long to learn the law, and the Internet has contributed to this hidden knowledge being exposed to the people. We’ve all been programmed that we’re subject to these guys. We have to change that programming. People are waking up. I hope it’s not too late.”
Don’t call it a movement
There are various labels for people like Lind and Murphy, people who argue that the modern U.S. government isn’t what everyone thinks it is. Such people, however, tend to dislike labels. Many point out they’re nothing more than average Americans, though their eyes have been opened to the social conditioning that’s been woven over the years into the fabric of the red, white, and blue. Some are willing to use the term “sovereign,” though it’s a broad concept. Lind, on the other had, objects to the term, calling himself simply “one of the people of California.”
Many who do consider themselves sovereign today are reluctant to speak about their convictions for fear of being labeled crazy, and those convictions are practically as varied as the people who hold them. Some people are strict constitutionalists; others consider their rights to be granted only by a higher power, recognizing no intercessor between God and Man.
Though the concept of exercising individual sovereignty may be resurging in the Internet Age, it isn’t a new one. The idea appears in American law books as early as 1793, in the Supreme Court case of Chisholm vs. Georgia.
The court’s decision states: “at the Revolution, the sovereignty devolved on the people; and they are truly the sovereigns of the country, but they are sovereigns without subjects ... with none to govern but themselves; the citizens of America are equal as fellow citizens, and as joint tenants in the sovereignty.”
Later court cases granted individuals residing in the United States entitlement to the same rights as the monarchy of the old British Empire, subject only to restrictions imposed by the Constitution.
Woodrow Michael Holmes, a Ventura man who considers himself a “sovereign free inhabitant,” explained the importance of this concept in an e-mail to New Times.
“Personal sovereignty to me means that I am the King that was declared in the Declaration of Independence,” he wrote. “No other king or monarch is above me. If I have ever been erroneously placed in any lower status it was done by deception without full disclosure, and therefore is VOID.”
The genesis for modern sovereignty theory came about in the early 1970s, birthed out of frustration with the way the government was applying written law in regard to the Internal Revenue Service to collect taxes.
While sovereignty today has been described as a “movement” by some media outlets, that implication of organization isn’t really accurate. Affiliations between various sovereignty groups are loose, if they exist at all.
“It’s very fractured,” said Richard Michael, a common law advocate based in Los Angeles. “There are what you might call pockets of leaders—in other words, somebody who is promoting a system, and they’ve discovered this somehow. They’ve read tons of books and legal opinions and spent years in law libraries and they’ve come up with this system. This is typically how they present themselves, and then people basically buy into it.”
Sovereigns often draw distinctions between the term “person” (which they define as a fictional or corporate entity) and “people” (who are born free and subject only to natural, or common, law).
To Ventura’s Holmes, and many others who consider themselves sovereign, the concept of citizenship is nothing more than a scam foisted on the American people to deprive them of their sovereign status and is carried out through the process of voter registration.
“Most people think that a ‘US citizen’ is anyone who lives in the geographical area of the United States of America. It is not,” Holmes wrote. “By making this claim, you are claiming to be a ‘federal citizen’ of the area defined in Article 1, Section 8, clause 17 of the Constitution. That removes you of your Article IV, Free Inhabitant, Articles of Confederation sovereign status with birthrights and puts you in their limited jurisdiction as a ‘US citizen’ with government-granted privileges.”
Though the avenues sovereigns have used to reach their conclusions differ wildly, there are some commonalities. As noted before, many point to the secession of the Southern states in 1861 and the start of the Civil War as the moment when the country ceased to exist as a lawful union and became a corporation.
A common interpretation of the law among sovereigns is that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1868, and the subsequent District of Columbia Organic Act in 1871, established the United States as a private, for-profit corporation, with its headquarters located in 10 square miles of Washington, D.C. Citizens, as defined by the 14th Amendment, are subject to the corporation, the interpretation goes, and any laws made in this country since do not apply to “the people.”
Context is key
The United States-as-corporation theory certainly has its detractors, even among people sympathetic to the underlying idea. Common law advocate Michael has analyzed it for years and says it originated with a “quasi-religious” organization he said has erroneously interpreted the law and disseminated misinformation.
“The problem with some of the people that are promoting this is that some of them are doing it for profit. … If you join their association and pay a bunch of money, then you get inside knowledge of certain things they have,” he said. “The public information they put out I believe has some major flaws in it in terms of their analysis. It comes from some people not being able to rationally reason from one thing to another.”
Though Michael said the corporation theory has no basis, he believes the concept of sovereignty does and has been supported by numerous Supreme Court decisions over the years. Unfortunately, he said, quotes from case law and statutes are commonly taken out of context, confusing people who ultimately end up in jail.
“When it’s taken out of context, it doesn’t mean it’s true or it’s right. It just means that the Supreme Court said it,” he explained. “Yeah, they could have said it, but when you look at the whole context involved where that was said, and you’ve used reason to go from A to B, you might come up with a wholly different analysis.
“The people, in almost all the state constitutions and the federal Constitution as well, establish the government,” he continued. “When the United States broke away from England … the people in the former colonies were sovereign unto themselves. There was no higher authority than the people, and they all established constitutions that established the government.”
Michael summed up one court’s statement that the people are sovereign without subjects: “In other words, we govern ourselves.”
Belly up to the bar
So what happens when independent citizens find themselves in conflict with the government? Police officers and judges obviously get involved, and where they go, lawyers tend to follow, navigating nuanced legal proceedings and arguing on behalf of the people they represent. But not everyone sees that as a good thing.
Lind and Murphy, like a good deal of others, believe bar attorneys pledge allegiance to the court first, which supersedes allegiance to their clients. Once an accused person has chosen to be represented by a bar attorney, they say, he or she has consented to being ruled by the judicial system.
Because of this, Murphy and Lind have refused to hire lawyers who won’t sign documents releasing them from their obligation to the bar, which Murphy and others say is an acronym that stands for “British Accreditation Registry.” (Legal officials say that theory is bunk.)
“The attorney, when they sign up and get a bar card, they’ve surrendered their American citizenship to Britain, to support and do what the Crown wants,” Murphy said.
“That’s another way that Britain, the Crown has to extort us, to destroy us, is through the attorneys,” he went on. “As soon as you hire an attorney, you surrender all your rights as one of the people.”
According to Michael, what began as a common law over time gradually became statutory law. As court decisions came down, states decided they needed to codify common law in criminal cases.
One of the ways the court system gains jurisdiction over a person is through the arraignment process in which defendants are asked to choose among one of three options: guilty, not guilty or no contest.
“By picking any one of those three choices, you’re submitting to the jurisdiction of that tribunal,” Michael said. “If the people created the state, and the state originated the legislature, then the legislature doesn’t have jurisdiction over the people unless they consent. Most of the time the people consent. They go into court and plead … and that’s how that issue is resolved. They don’t realize that they don’t have to plead, because pleading is what the system wants them to do.”
In the early 20th century, the bar association took over the legal system, Michael said. Before that time, almost anyone could go into court and represent himself.
“An attorney is an officer of the court, so by hiring an attorney, you also come under the jurisdiction of the court,” Michael said. “Unless you’re willing to do it yourself, there’s very little recourse you have in modern times.
“His duty to the court is higher than his duty to his client. They’ll say they’re going to defend you, but their whole livelihood depends on the court, being able to practice before them in that representative capacity, so they’re not going to do anything that will upset the system,” he said.
With the deck stacked against them, Michael said, the only way for defendants to win is to go it alone. A counterclaim against judges and officials in the court system is a valid option and the most effective defense for those representing themselves, he explained, putting the onus on the court to prove they have jurisdiction.
The defense, he said, has in fact worked in cases of victimless crimes where there are no injured parties, such as traffic tickets, drug possession, zoning violations, and the like.
“Those kind of things get dropped, but you don’t hear about those kinds of silent victories because there’s no confrontation. Where these things work, there’s not a law book opinion … those aren’t going to be the kind of cases that win under the valid sovereignty argument.”
But if it works, why don’t more people do it?
“All of these things are ingrained into people for such a long time, from when they’re little kids into their adulthood and they see the results of it until they get whacked by the system a few times and realize, you know what, I guess that’s the way it is. It’s acquiescence.”
Even if the defense was known by all, Michael said, 70 to 80 percent of people would still do nothing because it’s easier.
“I think most people would still go along with it, only because when you think about the time and effort involved in challenging any of these things, even something as simple as challenging a traffic ticket, it’s quite a bit of effort. But the more people that do it, it might get some negative response back from the system and the courts in trying to shut it down. If it became too widespread, the courts would see it as a threat to the way they’ve been operating.”
For Lind and Murphy—facing charges of attempting to procure a false instrument for record, conspiracy to commit a crime, and attempted filing of a false document related to a single-family residence (all stemming Lind’s claims of damages against Judge Kuns)—it’s worth it.
“It’s not easy,” Lind told New Times. “It’s a tremendous amount of anguish. You have no idea the sleepless nights. Look at the work it is.”
The two are scheduled to appear in court for an arraignment on Aug. 25. In the meantime, Lind’s been speaking out about what he’s learned through his efforts. He says the Internet has made law books accessible to everyone and has an increasing number of people questioning what their rights are in a court of law.
“The sad state of affairs for all Americans is that they’ve just assumed that somebody else was minding the store and that somebody else was going to make sure nobody violated your rights, but they haven’t,” Lind said. “They went under and they made a corporation, and this corporation’s very lucrative.
“We’ve all played along,” he continued. “At some point, somebody’s got to stand up and say, ‘I’m not playing along with this. It’s wrong.’”
For the past three decades, prosecutors in Santa Barbara County have periodically encountered defendants who have claimed sovereignty and similar ideas in court. They would typically represent themselves—rather than hire an attorney—and were often charged with mundane things, like not having a car registered or refusing to pay some type of tax or not having a driver’s license.
Jerry Franklin, a Santa Barbara County Senior Deputy District Attorney, has prosecuted most of the cases involving “sovereign” defendants since 1975. In his time, Franklin said, he’s never seen such a defense prove successful in court.
“One wants to be kind or careful in how one addresses or opposes motions of that sort, but they are, in terms of legal sufficiency, bullshit motions,” he said. “They have their own theory, their own language, their own definitions.”
Franklin said he’s encountered all kinds of “weird assertions” over the years and found none of the arguments to be persuasive.
“I’m certain they’re satisfied that they’re absolutely right,” he said. “The problem is, of course, that they have to persuade a judge ultimately that their arguments make sense. They don’t make sense, and I haven’t found a judge yet who says, ‘Well you know what, this may have some merit. Let’s look into it.’”
According to Franklin, judges are tired of the “bogus reasoning” and attitude.
“They have constructions of language and law that are peculiar to sovereign citizens. It’s interesting: Once you understand what they’re talking about and how they got to it, you can sort of proceed on to the merits of the pleading. But any lawyer reading one of these for the first time would say, ‘What the hell is this?’”
Franklin said the sovereign defense died out for a time, but has recently come up again, and more often.
“Hope springs eternal,” he said. “It may be a new generation of advocates, but it doesn’t make any more sense now than it did 30 years ago.”