A Colorado man who fancied himself a “sovereign citizen” outside the reach of U.S. law instead finds himself a convicted felon facing time behind bars after a federal judge last week sentenced him to 70 months in prison.
Rocky Hutson, 59, thus joins a growing number of people who discover their arcane interpretation of America’s founding documents and laws do not immunize them from the enforcement of said laws.
So-called sovereign citizens pop up with some consistency on federal dockets, with convictions spanning the map from Sarasota County, New York, to Alabama, and from Missouri to Seattle.
In Colorado, Hutson was part of an elaborate scheme involving student loans, small business loans, car loans and home mortgages. He created phony financial instruments, then called banks and insisted they were real and had value, prosecutors said.
All told, Hutson was guilty of submitting $14.7 million of false payment claims to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and $6.3 million of bogus checks to various financial institutions.
He spent a considerable portion of his ill-gotten loans on a collection of 17 Harley-Davidson motorcycles and tried to buy a shopping center worth $7 million, prosecutors said.
A jury convicted him on 14 counts of financial crimes, including bank fraud.
“Americans have every right to believe whatever ideology they want,” said U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. “But they don’t have the right to hide behind any ideology to manipulate others in violation of the law and for their own personal gain. That’s what the defendant did, and he’ll be punished for it.”
Self-proclaimed sovereign citizens and members of the “constitutionalist nation,” “freemen” and other fringe groups argue they are not bound by laws passed by federal, state or local governments, whose legitimacy they question.
The internet is replete with amusing videos of such allegedly independent sorts trying to avoid speeding tickets and the like, only to have authorities lose patience and, in several cases, smash the car window to arrest the recalcitrant driver.
The outlaws try to rely on provisions of the federal rules of civil procedure, such as Rule 5.1 governing “a constitutional challenge to a statute.”
As a group calling itself “Constitutionalist Nation” declares on its Facebook page, “this is how you challenge all there[sic] unconstitutional statues[sic] on both state and federal level, any written opinions given by a court of record that support your claim as related to the constitutional challenge in question.”
Hutson took another approach in his trial.
He argued his “Sovereign Citizen Movement” beliefs, or SCM, were a religion, and said he was therefore protected by the First Amendment and by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“For the SCM, rejection of Federal law is based on an idealization of law as an expression of divine power, and this divine power supersedes the secular laws,” his lawyer told the judge in court filings. “They believe Federal laws are products of a corrupt interpretation of the true divinely inspired law. For the SCM, law is divinely ordained and underwritten; it has a transcendent and transformative power.”
The government said it was bunk, and Hutson’s sovereign citizen belief was more political than religious.
“It does not involve sacrificing self-interest to a higher power or spirit. To the contrary, the belief system seems to be entirely about forwarding Hutson’s material self-interest,” Mr. Troyer told the court.
The judge sided with the government.