Posted at: 10/31/2013 7:28 PM
Updated at: 11/01/2013 9:05 AM
By: Stephen Tellier
They don't recognize the government. The FBI labels them domestic terrorists. And now, the Hennepin County Sheriff has identified them as the number one threat to local law enforcement.
They call themselves sovereign citizens, and 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS is taking you inside their rapidly growing movement.
Sovereign citizens believe the current federal government is illegitimate and illegal. Experts estimate there are about 300,000 sovereigns in the U.S., with 100,000 of them described as "hardcore" members. Experts said their numbers are rising, and so are concerns for local officers.
He writes his name in all lowercase: "thomas-alan;friend." He adds ARR, "All Rights Reserved," and a red thumbprint. That's how Thomas Friend signed dozens of documents he filed in the past year while fighting felony attempted theft charges in Anoka County.
In hundreds of pages, Friend stated he, "is not a United States citizen," and "is not a corporate person," "but is a sovereign American national," a "natural physical being."
These are all hallmarks of sovereign citizens.
Friend declined to speak on camera, and we spent months trying to find a sovereign who would. Only one agreed.
Randy Hudson lives in a typical home on a typical street in a typical town of 4,700 people -- Luverne, Minn. But his views are anything but typical.
He said he believes all Americans are essentially corporate entities, that all Americans are enslaved in some way, and that some folks may be afraid of him because of his beliefs.
Sovereigns like Hudson believe America has been transformed from a republic into a democracy, shifting from self-government to a dictatorship, and from God's common law to unconstitutional statutory law.
"Over a period of 150 years, we have slowly lost all our rights," Hudson said.
They trace the change to an obscure law passed in 1871, which created the municipal government of Washington, D.C. But sovereigns believe it had a deeper, sinister purpose.
"In 1871, the government was turned into a corporation," Hudson said.
That leads to perhaps their most bizarre belief -- that the federal government has sold its citizens to investors, and holds a secret bank account in the name of every American, with millions of dollars in each one.
"They're traded on the stock market the same as you and I are," Hudson said.
Hudson said he knows how this sounds.
"They think we're crazy, or they say there's absolutely no way this could be true," Hudson said.
But one look online shows he is far from alone.
"This is a movement that is spreading, and spreading rapidly," said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group.
Potok is an expert on domestic extremists, including sovereign citizens.
"It is a movement that tells its adherents that everything the government says is false, that the government is secretly holding your dollars that you have a right to, and so it inculcates in its adherents an extreme kind of disrespect for the law," Potok said.
He said that endangers those who uphold the law.
"They see the law enforcement official as an enemy who is lying to them, who is engaged in a gigantic conspiracy to deprive them of their rights," Potok said.
In 2010, father and son sovereign citizens murdered two police officers during a traffic stop in Arkansas. Last year, the FBI warned sovereigns are increasingly, "attempting to harass and intimidate law enforcement." In August, two sovereigns were arrested in Las Vegas for allegedly plotting to torture and kill police officers.
"We've seen quite a bit of violence come out of this movement, and I have no doubt that we will see more," Potok said.
"If you ask us what's the biggest concern facing us today in terms of a threat, it is sovereign citizen groups and movements across this country," said Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek.
Stanek has a long list of concerns. He puts the sovereign citizen movement at the top.
"Our encounters with sovereign citizens are becoming increasingly more violent," Stanek said.
"They're people that don't believe in the government, the legitimacy of the government," said Dep. Chad Christopherson with the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office.
We rode along with Christopherson as he made the rounds serving civil papers. Officers often come across sovereigns during such routine encounters.
Christopherson said some pepper him with personal or politically-charged questions. Another scrawled threats inside a foreclosed home.
"They had spray-painted things on the walls, calling the sheriff an oath breaker," Christopherson said.
Then, there is so-called "paper terrorism," a popular sovereign tactic targeting the courts. Some, like Thomas Friend, flood the system with filings. Others are more confrontational. Thomas and Lisa Eilertson were sentenced to 23 months in prison in June after filing billions of dollars in property liens against everyone involved the foreclosure of their home, including Stanek himself.
"They came out to my residence, my personal residence, and confronted my family," Stanek said.
Stanek said he worries about an increasingly confrontational minority of sovereign citizens resorting to violence.
As for Hudson, he counts himself among the majority.
"We get linked to the sovereign groups that are out killing people, breaking the law, trying to get what they want through force, and I don't condone it, and anybody that their heart's into this will not condone violence," Hudson said.
He said he's pushing for change through education.
"That's all we're asking, is for the people to look at the Constitution and read it. We're not saying, 'Pick up a gun and let's overthrow the government,' because it isn't going to happen," Hudson said.
But hundreds of thousands are hoping one day, it will.
"There might be a day, someday, that maybe we'll get a republic form of government back," Hudson said.
The sovereign citizen movement has spawned a kind of national shadow government, the Republic for the United States of America, which even elects its own president and state representatives. Hudson served as Minnesota's lieutenant governor in that organization, but stepped down last year, saying there was too much infighting to be productive.