When Georgia judges, court clerks and police chiefs found the legal system being turned against them, they sought a way to strike back. The result is a new state law against so-called sovereign citizens who engage in “paper terrorism” to harass public officials.
The law makes it a felony to knowingly file false liens against government employees. One example of the problem occurred last year when Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston, Appalachian Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Brenda Weaver and Fannin County Superior Court Clerk Dana Chastain found themselves targeted by liens that could have wrecked their credit ratings and wasted courthouse resources.
“Once a lien is placed against you, places like Equifax and other credit reporting agencies don’t care who filed it. It’s just on your record, and it takes quite a while to remove. It will ruin your credit,” Chastain said. “That’s a scary thing in this day and time.”
The man who filed the liens, Robert Eugene Stephens, was indicted by a Fannin County grand jury in January on 20 counts including forgery, intimidation of a court officer and making a false statement. Stephens filed the liens after he lost a civil judgment in a case brought by a Washington company, Northwest Territorial Mint LLC, which claimed he didn’t pay them a few thousand dollars for gold and silver coins he had bought, said Clint Bearden, who represented the company and works in Ralston’s law office.
“Some people are using this as kind of an offensive defense … trying to intimidate the officers and court employees who are filing these documents, to keep them from being able to do their jobs,” said Appalachian Circuit District Attorney Joe Hendricks. He emphasized he was speaking broadly about anti-government lien filers, not Stephens himself. “When they file a lien against a judge with no basis for it, the next thing you know, they’re filing a motion to recuse the judge because they’ve got a lien against them.”
Stephens’ attorney, Scott Kiker in Blue Ridge, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment. Stephens also couldn’t be reached. He will likely go on trial before the end of the year, Hendricks said.
After Chastain and her colleagues noticed the liens, they immediately alerted the GBI and FBI, she said. The liens were never recorded and no damage was done.
The new legislation, House Bill 997, appears to be the first of its kind in any state, said Representative B.J. Pak, who sponsored the measure. A separate law passed by Congress in 2007, the Court Security Improvement Act, makes it a felony to file false liens against federal officials.
“The bill is designed to protect public officers who get harassed by people who object to their authority. People who claim they’re not subject to the jurisdiction of our state laws and federal laws are getting kind of dangerous,” said Pak, R-Lilburn.
Pak, a former federal prosecutor, had a retaliatory lien filed against him several years ago by a man Pak helped convict in a drug trafficking case. The lien didn’t go far because the man didn’t get Pak’s name right, he said.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation sought the false lien legislation after hearing about several incidents and consulting with Governor Nathan Deal’s office, said GBI spokesman John Bankhead. Besides the liens filed in Fannin County, Temple Police Chief Tim Shaw also fought off frivolous liens brought against him by a man who was issued a citation for not wearing a seat belt.
“There should be a specific law on the books that could be used against those who use these tactics against public officials,” Bankhead said. “Some individuals who sympathize with this movement are very hard-headed and think the government doesn’t have the right to do anything.”
The law, which takes effect July 1, comes with sentences ranging from one to 10 years and fines up to $10,000 for those convicted of filing false liens.
The liens are often based on admiralty law, with forms downloaded from websites frequented by people who assert that they’re sovereign citizens, Pak said. The federal maritime liens typically claim someone owes money, and court clerks file them without verifying their validity. Additional legislation may be needed if the new law isn’t effective as a deterrent, he said.
“We probably have to give some discretion to the clerks of court so that if they have suspicion about a lien, they can ask for judicial guidance before filing it,” Pak said.
The creative tactics of sovereign citizens against legitimate government business emphasize the need for new laws to deal with them, said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.
“It’s more than paper terrorism. It’s a form of intimidation that is needless. Law enforcement officers have a job to do, as do prosecutors and judges,” said Rotondo, who supported the legislation. “If you feel the actions of law enforcement are incorrect, you have options available to you, but that doesn’t include going after the officer’s property.”