Defiant, Armed: Idaho Man Rejects U.S. Laws in Radical Trend

PHOTO: Robert Peterson is one of the latest and youngest people to latch onto many of the beliefs of a growing underground movement known as "sovereign citizens."
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It was 8:20 a.m. on a Monday at the county courthouse in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho.

Robert Peterson, then 21, was trying to bring his video camera into the courtroom where he was contesting a minor traffic ticket. When the bailiff told him he couldn't bring his camera inside, Peterson told him to step aside and let him through. When the argument escalated, the bailiff used a stun gun on him. Peterson kept the camera rolling and later posted the incident on YouTube.

Peterson, now 22, said being hit by a stun gun was a small price to pay for his belief that the United States government has no authority over him.

"I'm out to abolish it because there is no salvaging at this point," he said.

It is a belief his mother, Tina Busby, worries could get her son killed.

"My fear is that it's going to end with him getting shot," she said. "That's my ultimate what I think is going to happen."

But Peterson said he is willing to live -- or die -- by his beliefs. Peterson is one of the latest and youngest people to latch onto many of the beliefs of a growing underground movement known as "sovereign citizens," people who, to a greater or lesser extent, do not believe the laws of this country apply to them. Some have disrupted courtrooms, led police on high speed car chases and even engaged in murderous shootouts with authorities.

The FBI classifies sovereign citizens as a domestic terrorist movement and it has had some notorious members in the past. Terry Nichols, the co-plotter of the Oklahoma City Bombing, and Joe Stack, who flew his small plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, in 2010, were both sovereign citizens.

The movement is estimated to be 300,000 people strong today, and many follow a worrisome progression, from passionate but peaceful to ultra-violent.

"It can be scary because you have individuals where it's just a speeding ticket, for them and their beliefs, that could be very easily be a situation where they go to guns," said Spokane County Deputy Sheriff Craig Chamberlin. "The potential is huge."

After the stun gun incident, Peterson found himself back to the same courthouse in Coeur D'Alene to go on trial, where he was charged with three counts of battery on a court official and one count of contempt of court. He potentially faced two years in jail.

At first glance, he seems like an average young man. He lives in his mother's house with his two younger brothers and rides his bike. But every time he goes out, Peterson straps on his pistol, which is legal to do in Idaho, and he openly declares the local police to be his enemy.

"Unfortunately, yes, they are the enemy of anybody who wants to live free," he said. "They exhibit nothing but evidence to suggest they are a criminal organization bent on stealing from people."

Peterson's long series of run-ins with authorities began when he was 18 and was busted for making fireworks. That's when he said he went online and stumbled into a whole hidden world of sovereign citizen ideology, which argues that the U.S. government is a corporation profiting off of all of us, and that anyone who knows better can avoid paying taxes or even getting a driver's license. Some, like Peterson, declare that they were never a citizen of this country to begin with.

But putting his beliefs into practice has produced non-stop conflict for Peterson. Aside from arguing traffic violations, he at one point declared a nearby $370,000-foreclosed home to be his property. He even put a sign out front that said "this is my spot now."

Ultimately, the local sheriff, who is very familiar with Peterson by now, made him leave. Kootenai County Sheriff-elect Ben Wolfinger said they hope his behavior doesn't continue to escalate.

"We need to be aware of who he is and what his ideology, just in case that manifests itself into something else down the road," he said.

Peterson insisted that he is non-violent -- to a point.

"If they shoot at me first, shooting back would be a good reaction," he said.

When Peterson appeared in court for the stun gun incident, there was extra security on hand, including the bailiff who used the stun gun on him.

"First time in eight years that I ever had to pull a Taser," Pete Barnes said. "You don't ever want to do that to anybody, but our job is to protect the people and not cause the defendant harm. You always hate to do things like that."

Inside the courtroom, Peterson remained defiant, refusing to take off his hat at first when the guard asked him to.

"Out of respect for the court they want him to take his hat off, but I get it, he doesn't have respect for the court," said his mother, Tina Busby.

Peterson eventually took his hat off and the judge set a trial date for three days later, but Peterson didn't seem fazed by the experience.

"Just continue doing what I'm doing," he said. "Going to tell them they're wrong for trying to screw with me."

Peterson's case attracted attention from other people who follow the sovereign citizen ideology in the Northwest, an area that has long been a hotbed of radicalism.

Michael Hicks of Spokane, Wash., had a SWAT team descend upon him and his cousin after they refused to get out of their vehicle.

While he said he would call the fire department, which is funded through local taxes, if his house were on fire, Hicks referred to firefighters as "our servants."

Many sovereigns refuse to let what most consider to be contradictions get in their way. Peterson lives off his mother, who receives monthly disability payments from the government, but he said he doesn't apply for any benefits.

"Accepting government support at this stage of the game is pretty near the end of life of the Republic, what is known as the United States, is pretty much non-consequential," he said.

When Peterson was called back to court to discuss a possible deal for the stun gun incident, his defiance continued. He refused to rise when the judge entered the room. When the judge threatened to find him in contempt and sentence him to five days in the county jail for not rising, Peterson responded, "I will rise under protest then."

In the end, Peterson took the deal the prosecutors offered: No jail time, but the Alfred plea, which means he did not admit to the criminal act, but acknowledged the prosecution likely had enough evidence to convict him. But Peterson knows his struggle is not over.

"I'm going to keep living my life and if they have a problem with it then I have to go to court and argue," he said. "It's not like I'm going to change the way I live or drive just because some bailiff tased me or a judge said I'm guilty."

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