When Newport police cited Ronald James Lyons‘ bar in Newport for liquor sales without a license, Lyons walked into the police station and informed the chief that his business wasn’t subject to U.S. law.
“He tried to serve me with a handwritten trespass notice,” Police Chief Maurice Shults said. “I explained to him that as long as he lived in or operated a business within the city limits, if there was a violation of the law we’d be there.”
Based on court records, Lyons didn’t take the hint. A Davidson County grand jury indicted him and nine other East Tennesseans arrested this week as part of a crackdown on adherents to the so-called “sovereign citizens” movement.
All face charges of forgery and of filing bogus liens against various public officials, a common tactic employed by members of the movement, who deny the legitimacy of federal, state and local authorities, thumb their noses at the law, and often delight in waging private legal wars against those who challenge them. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, calls the strategy a form of “paper terrorism.”
TBI agents served Cromwell with the indictment Wednesday, just before an Anderson County jury found him guilty of vehicular homicide. Officers across the region rounded up the others on the same day.
The liens – easy and cheap to file online but time-consuming and expensive to fight – can ruin victims’ credit and unleash a swarm of financial difficulties. Lyons filed 30 such liens, according to the indictment.
Filing a bogus lien carries a felony charge punishable by up to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.
He also filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court accusing Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes, General Sessions Judge John Bell, and his creditors of “slavery, slavery-like practices, and crimes against humanity” and demanded an “international human rights investigation” after he was served with a judgment for failing to pay debts.
Sovereign citizens cling to a patchwork mythology in which the U.S. government at some point became illegally subverted from a constitutional system to one based on “admiralty law” and international commerce that turned free citizens into slaves. The income tax, the Federal Reserve, and the gold standard tend to figure prominently in such histories.
The movement’s believers fight back by refusing to pay taxes and reciting incomprehensible legal jargon, often cut-and-pasted from online forums, that they see as a talisman to somehow exempt them from the law and help them reclaim their sovereignty. They often refuse to carry government documents and draw up handmade driver’s licenses, car tags, and passports.
Lyons, for example, filed a “certificate of non-United States citizen status” in Cocke County Circuit Court, replete with misspellings, random capitalizations, clashing fonts and legal nonsequiturs.
“The U.S. Government is a foreign corporation,” the notice reads. “Any and all record of my being a ‘U.S. citizen’ is in error and must promptly be corrected. … Thank you very much for your prompt and courteous compliance with this request.”
A Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper pulled over Austin Gary Cooper, another of those indicted, on state Highway 61 in Anderson County in April and cited him on a charge of driving without a license. Cooper blew off a court appearance, according to records, and filed liens against Sheriff Paul White and General Sessions Judge Don Layton.
Cooper, 68, of Clinton, has spent more than a quarter-century as a roaming apostle of the movement, records show. He was convicted in 1990 in Florida of failing to pay federal income tax but went on to set up a foundation, Take Back America, that charged clients $1,600 to learn what he billed as a secret legal formula for ducking taxes. Before coming to Tennessee, he served prison time for criminal contempt of court in 2006 after he violated a federal judge’s order to stop hawking his scheme.
“I am a man, on the land, a lawful man, capable of bearing an oath,” Cooper wrote in an “affidavit of truth” that denounced all federal courts as “legal fictions” and followed the familiar sovereign citizen script. “There is no evidence that I am a U.S. citizen … and I believe none exists.”
The others charged in the case – Michael Robert Birdsell, 54, of Andersonville; Victor Douglas Bunch, 72, of Powell; Christopher Alan Hauser, 51, of Del Rio, Tenn.; James Michael Usinger, 64, of Greeneville; John Jeffrey Williams, 50, of Powell; George Edward Williams, 76, of Powell; and Kenneth Ray Foust, 73, of Clinton – have left a similar trail of bogus liens and frivolous litigation across the region, authorities said.
Court dates have not yet been set.
State Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, and state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, have introduced legislation that would make fighting fraudulent liens easier for public officials. Those bills remain in committee.