Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 12, 2022. Today, March 13 2023, we’re revisiting this article after news that Chase Allan, a follower of the so-called Sovereign Citizen movement, was killed by police during a traffic stop stemming from a fake license plate Allan had on his car. Read on to learn more about the Sovereign Citizen movement and their reliance on fake license plates in our article below from 2022.
“Sovereign citizenship” is a belief in pseudo-legal theory that certain Latin phrases, interpretations of law, name spellings and peculiarities around state documentation and signatures mean you don’t have to register your car, obtain a driver’s license, or indeed follow any laws deemed harmful to your own personal freedom. This is, of course, absurd, and very much illegal.
Now, these sovereign citizens often make their grift look vaguely official, to make them more believable as a legal defense, but that often ends in boring fakeries that don’t quite look official or anything like the real thing. But some who ascribed to this fringe theory have brought a little flair to their fake (and very illegal) license plates.
A recent Twitter thread from Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow and expert in the sovereign citizen movement at the Center on Extremism, Anti-Defamation League, is a stirring reminder of just how many patches there are on the crazy quilt. Pitcavage told Jalopnik such plates have been in circulations since the sovereign citizen movement first appeared on the scene in the 1970s.
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“There’s nearly 50 years of bogus license plates, bogus driver’s licenses, insurance, registration and so forth,” Pitcavage said. These particular fake license plates do look pretty sharp, but I don’t think they’ll be tricking any cops anytime soon. Pitcavage mostly focused on plates from a Black sovereign citizenship movement in this thread. That’s how long the sovereign citizen movement has been around: even though its roots are in the white supremacy of the Christian Identity movement, a Black movement has seized on it as well. That’s because it offers solutions to problems everyone understands: financial problems, legal woes, distrust of government—you name it. Just don’t expect those solutions to actually work when faced with a judge.
When it comes to these fake plates, most are designed for one of two purposes. Some are designed to pass — they’re not counterfeit plates, in the sense that they try to duplicate legitimate plates; they purport to be some other type of plate that nevertheless is legitimate. Attempts have included tribal plates for fake Native American tribes, fake diplomatic plates or fake Department of Transportation plates, in hopes that a state trooper or security guard who doesn’t know any better will think everything’s legit. The other type are plates which make no attempt at pretend legitimacy, and rather declare that the operator of the motor vehicle is “traveling” rather than “driving,” a distinction that — in the minds of sovereign citizenship enthusiasts and no one else — makes them exempt from state taxes, vehicle registration or licensing laws.
And it’s not just fake plates and phony driver’s license. Some sovereign citizens even pretend to be law enforcement, using fake decals or logos on their cars to slip past police and security checkpoints, or sometimes to intimidate people who they feel have wronged them. By utilizing fake checks and money orders that look close enough to the real thing, sovereign citizens have made off with high-end boats and cars from unwary sales associates. And of course, traffic stops are commonly citizens’ first contact with the legal system. Such stops can become dangerous for police, who have no idea the person they’re about to speak to holds these beliefs and may very well be armed. In 2010, father-and-son sovereign citizens killed two police officers in a rain of gunfire during a routine traffic stop. Pitcavage even trains police departments in how to handle sovereign citizens.
The sovereign citizen movement is only gaining strength. Sovereign citizens tapped into paranoia and distrust of the federal government decades before QAnon came on the scene. Now it’s gone international in English and non-English speaking countries alike, despite sovereign tactics never working anywhere in the real world. But of course, followers of this movement are able to justify almost anything. As Pitcavage told Jalopnik:
A lot of people in the movement never hear about the failures. They may know that they personally have been thwarted and the movement has not delivered them. Another thing is, if one of these Sovereign Citizen gurus followers loses in court, what they’ll do is tell their other followers, “look they screwed it up, they didn’t do the steps right. If they had done everything right, they would have won and so it’s their fault.” Or they might say “Well, that just proves our point that the whole judicial system is corrupt and illegitimate because a true constitutional judge would have agreed with X or Y.” Finally, they reinterpret what a victory is. So for example, if a sovereign citizen gets off, not because of their pseudo legal arguments but because of a technicality, they view that as a victory for the argument. It has nothing to do with their arguments but they’ll promote them as victories.
I’m fascinated by folks with radically different points of view. We all have what Timothy Leary called our own reality tunnels, but sovereign citizen adherents have reality tunnels that look like an old slide at a McDonald’s PlayPlace — cracked, twisted and full of shit. I think Pitcavage said it best at the end of our interview:
“They have a tremendous amount of imagination. Unfortunately, it goes towards illegal or other awful things.”