by Isaac Stone Simonelli and Brendon Derr | Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting
A 63-page packet arrived at the Pima County Recorder’s Office in January, postmarked from Texas with unusual formatting identifying the sender: oddly hyphenated names, stray colons and bracketed-off zip codes. The text’s jumbled punctuation marks, interwoven with rambling pseudo-legal phrasing, were part of a conspiracy-laden code designed to circumvent the U.S. government.
“I hereby Asseverate, Repudiate and Revoke my Citizenship, if any ever existed, with the Legal fiction known as the ‘UNITED STATES’ Government (Corporation), USA Inc, and any and all subsidiary corporations both known (STATE, COUNTY, CITY,) and unknown under its control,” the sender wrote.
The packet was just one in a recent flood of filings submitted in Arizona by so-called sovereign citizens seeking to disentangle themselves from what they consider an illegitimate government. By filing specially formatted paperwork, sovereigns believe they can remove themselves from the system, and they’re increasingly choosing to start the process in Pima County.
In 2020, the Pima County recorder received about 50 such filings, according to an AZCIR review. In 2022, it received more than 1,400—a sharp spike that parallels a national resurgence in the sovereign citizen movement.
Adherents of the ideology have garnered a reputation for conflict with government officials, law enforcement officers and members of the public—conflicts that, in some cases, have turned violent. More commonly, sovereigns engage in so-called paper terrorism tactics, threatening and harassing public officials by inundating them with baseless lawsuits and liens.
“Encountering sovereign citizens can be frustrating at best and dangerous at worst,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the left-leaning Anti-Defamation League who has tracked the movement for decades.
By accepting sovereign filings, county recorders—usually acting on the legal advice of their county attorneys—provide a veneer of legitimacy to the paperwork and, in turn, the ideology.
Until 2020, most submissions received by the Pima County Recorder’s Office came from within Arizona. But as the office gained national attention for being friendly to sovereign filings, it began receiving packets from nearly every state, with the majority coming from California, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Washington, a months-long AZCIR review of thousands of county documents found.
Waning public trust in institutions, frustration with pandemic-era policies and an information ecosystem inundated with conspiracy theories and fringe belief systems have fueled growth of the movement in Arizona and the U.S. alike, according to researchers and experts.
“We are in an environment where there are so many sources of information, and it’s harder and harder to verify which are the trustworthy ones,” said Noah Bookbinder, president and CEO of the left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “People all across the spectrum can easily go down rabbit holes where they believe a certain take on reality without necessarily having an easy way to know how it relates to objective truth.”
Paul Bender, professor of law and dean emeritus for Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said the sovereign citizen legal theories are “just completely off the rails.”
“If you’re here, you’re bound by the law that’s here, and you can’t just declare yourself independent from it,” Mr. Bender said. “That’s ridiculous.”
Whether they act independently or identify with one of the movement’s many loose-knit groups, sovereign citizens typically share the same core conviction: that the United States was subverted by an illegitimate government more than 100 years ago, and its laws have no real authority over them.
In extreme cases, adherents have resorted to violence—or even deadly force—to defend that belief.
In a 2014 survey, following a series of dangerous interactions with sovereign citizens, officers across the nation deemed members of the movement one of the greatest threats to U.S. communities. In 2011, for instance, the FBI had a tense standoff with an armed sovereign citizen and his family in Yavapai County. And in 2013, the Arizona Department of Public Safety identified a sovereign with a loaded AK-47, pipe bombs and other explosive components in his vehicle.
More often, sovereign tactics are limited to administrative maneuvers, such as refusing to register vehicles or pay taxes, or pseudo-legal attacks against public officials and others.
Filing documents with county officials and the secretary of state is a fundamental part of how sovereign citizens operate. But it can be difficult for officials to know how best to handle the resulting deluge of paperwork.
On one hand, public officials are required to process and maintain public documents. On the other, torrents of sovereign filings can overtax government systems and cause tangible harm to targets of groundless liens and lawsuits.
“Our office is here to serve all Arizonans. However, accepting and managing paperwork that does not adhere to existing legal standards remains a challenge, not just for our office, but for recorders offices across the state,” wrote Paul Smith-Leonard, a spokesperson for the Arizona Secretary of State’s office. “We are working on providing consistent guidance for Secretary of State staff on how best to handle these types of filings.”
Nearly every county in the state told AZCIR it accepts sovereign citizen documents, but most receive fewer than a dozen such packets a year. Pima County, a clear exception, received about 600 in the first quarter of 2023 alone.
Accepting a document does not make it legal, according to Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, but rather ensures it is available to the public in perpetuity.
“You can come in here and record your grandma’s chocolate chip cookie recipe if you wanted, and it would not make it a legal document,” she said. ”But it would make it a public document.’
The influx of sovereign filings has resulted in more work for her team, which has to scan and process the often voluminous packets. The county also stopped accepting personal checks from sovereigns in 2021 after they were unable to cash a spate of them associated with what Ms Cázares-Kelly called “sovereign banks.”
Apache County is the only government body in the state that confirmed it refuses to accept sovereign citizen documents, according to its recorder’s office. The office said the decision was made by the county’s legal division, but County Attorney Michael Whiting declined to elaborate.
Mohave County similarly has established protocols to prevent the paperwork from overwhelming its office. After refusing to accept sovereign documents from 2020 to 2022, it currently accepts them only if they meet certain standards, such as having a direct connection to Mohave County, according to Recorder Kristi Blair.
“If it is a random filing and has nothing to do with Mohave County, we will return it with a letter of explanation,” Ms. Blair wrote.
ADL’s Pitcavage, who has traveled the country since the 1990s advising county officials on sovereign citizens and their documents, encourages agencies to reject such paperwork outright. He points out that even a false lien, when accepted by a recorder’s office, can result in the target needing to hire an attorney.
“It’s a lot harder to deal with a sovereign citizen document that’s been filed, like a bogus lien, than it is to deal with one that’s never been filed in the first place,” Mr. Pitcavage said.
He urged county officials who don’t have the power to deny sovereign filings to lobby for policy change. In the meantime, he said, it’s important for them to be trained on identifying false liens and other documents targeting businesses and people so they can at least notify the proper authorities.
The false lien tactic, a mainstay of what experts describe as paper terrorism, has been used by sovereign citizens for decades to retaliate against public officials and private community members. Arizona revised its groundless lien statute in 1985 to provide better protections against such liens.
In 2022, Shelley Evans used false liens to target 10 members of Sedona’s government, including the city’s mayor, vice mayor, council members, magistrate judge and senior code enforcement officer. Ms. Evans, who founded the Ultimate Light Mission in Sedona, filed the liens at the Coconino County Recorder’s Office, naming five others as plaintiffs.
The notices alleged the officials committed 391 violations of the Constitution and Bill of Rights and demanded a payment of more than $12 million. Though Coconino County Attorney William Ring informed the recorder’s office that “the purported lien is conclusively presumed to be invalid,” requests made on behalf of the public officials to invalidate the false liens failed.
This April, Sedona filed felony criminal charges against the group, labeling them as so-called sovereign citizens and accusing them of harassing public officials through acts of “paper terrorism,” according to court documents.
“Defendants knew that the ‘liens’ were groundless and not authorized by any legal authority. Their sole aim in recording them was to harass Plaintiffs,” the criminal complaint states. “These filings were nothing more than an attempt to bully, harass, and intimidate these public officials.”
In a document filed with the Coconino County Recorder’s Office in May, two of Ms. Evans’ co-defendants claimed they did not write or fully understand the lien they took against public officials, and that “signing it was a mistake.” They indicated they’d broken off contact with the group in July 2022.
Ms. Evans declined to comment for this story.