March 8, 2012— -- Sovereign citizens are a loosely-organized collection of groups and individuals who believe they are both above the law and "true defenders of the Constitution."
They follow their own set of rules and many refuse to pay taxes. The movement's followers believe, in large part, that the existing government in the United States is illegitimate and needs to be "restored." Many sovereigns refer to themselves as "patriots" or "constitutionalists." Driver's licenses, license plates, and insurance are not required, many sovereign believe, going as far as making their own identification badges and gun permits. Some members are known to turn violent against law enforcement and are notoriously hostile towards the media.
Federal government officials describe sovereign citizens as an "extremist anti-government group" and the FBI is concerned about members of the group becoming more violent, accusing them of "comprising a domestic terrorist movement."
According to a new study released Wednesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of so-called hate or anti-government groups grew last year in the United States, fueled by a deeply felt socio-economic clash between the wealthy and the rest of the country, hostility from the right toward President Obama as he prepares to run for re-election, and the ease of the Internet to spread information.
The center, which has tracked such groups for 30 years, identified 1,018 hate groups in 2011, up slightly from 1,002 identified a year before, but the SPLC said this shows a continuing trend of "significant growth" that began over a decade ago.
Sovereign citizens are growing fast. The movement is estimated to be 300,000 people strong today, and has had some notorious members -- 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.
"Nightline" was recently able to get inside the sovereign citizens movement, starting in a small church in Center Point, Ala., where Donald Joe Barber and his congregation of sovereigns, many of whom are middle-class and educated, were gathered to pray.
"I don't live in the United States. I live in the nation of Alabama," Barber said.
The radicalization of Donald Barber began in the 1980s, when he sold his photocopier business and got a tax bill from the IRS -- what he called an "IRS Hoax." He then dove deep into sovereign citizen ideology, which cobbles together passages from obscure law books, along with parts of the Constitution and the Bible, to justify flouting everything from tax laws to laws requiring license plates.
Using a common sovereign argument, Barber, 62, insists he doesn't need tags on his car if he is "traveling" rather than "driving," because "driving" implies that he's engaged in commerce, as opposed to "traveling," which is a God-given right.
Barber has been hauled into court repeatedly over the years and is well known to local judges. When Judge David Lichtenstein found Barber guilty of having disabled vehicles in his yard, he said Barber sent him a letter demanding $6 million in gold.
"He doesn't believe United States currency is legal tender so it's got to be gold, silver," Lichtenstein said.