“Sovereign Citizen” And Cardboard License Plate

LAW IN FAR WEST TEXAS: This is the old Presidio County Annex Building where I held court as Pct. 2 JP for two years before Commissioners built a new county annex. The county jail was 60 miles away to the north in Marfa, an incentive to all concerned to resolve issues in “initial hearings” before “heading north”! Hard to think about a tiny courtroom inside but imagine the old judge being called out at midnight by deputies some Saturday night to referee a domestic dispute. Cars parked all around this building and in-laws and out-laws all lined up outside to put in their “two cents” with the judge. A lot of memories, yes.                                                                                    [Personal Photo]

By Dan Bodine

Idiom “tilting at windmills” from Miguel de Cervantes’ Spanish novel, Don Quixote seems apropos in today’s U. S. culture war.

(Note: A long one, dear readers. Hang in!)

Our current U. S. Civil War II (aka, Culture War) exploding now acts something like an imaginary kill-all virus that’s crept in, no? Casting suspicions about us. I’ve heard political commentators argue we’ve made tilting at windmills chic again, i.e., someone defiantly going after imaginary happenings and objects that were out there to git ‘ya!

Personally, I can’t fully grasp this fight now. Too old and too many weeds in the garden, maybe. But of what is it as a civil people we’re supposed to be so damn scared? Does the religious right want to neuter us sexually? Take all our property and wealth? Assign a mean, dispirited mother-in-law to all downtrodden and disinherited waifs? 

Current Republican politics seem to be centered civilly enough around lawmakers. But there’s a military curtness about it, too. For instance, It’s my duty as a private citizen to watch Congress for out-of-line activity, so by gawd I’m a gonna be this way!

Rigidity — e.g., its half-baked/half-breed primo cousins too often risk Sine Die of democratic progress. Don’t leave ‘ya hat when you exit those doors! it suggests.

But more so are these whitecaps in this current culture’s “tide wash,” their cold indifference to others. GOP lawmakers, i.e., daring President Biden not to blink on large budget cuts to the elderly and veterans in this runup to a threatened June 1 debt ceiling debacle. Why?

Well, count me skeptical on “tilting at windmills.” I don’t know if the somewhat soapy practice ever treed any raccoons in the first place. No doubt scared the hell out of a lot of ’em, though!

No, somewhere in all this I smell the gist of our kinder selves.

All this war ballyhoo, in fact, reminds me of a wash of sovereign citizen dregs that began clogging state courts in the early ’70s, and even now, still, are labeled domestic terrorists.

Almost every time I attended a Texas certification school for municipal court or a county’s precinct justice court, say, from the early ’90s into 2009, many of the questions attendees asked were on these new paper terrorists. (I touch on an experience further below.)

Sovereign citizens seemed at times to literally flood some courts with legal-jargon documents — arguments and motions to dismiss for lack of court jurisdiction, say. 

“No sir! Don’t accuse me of violating any of your laws!” they’d tell, first, law enforcement officers, and later after a citation, the courts. “I’m a sovereign citizen! The only laws I’m subject to are those I make my damn myself!”

I’m talking about “cells” of extremist misfits (I called ’em then ), banding together as individual “sovereign citizens” to shirk off any allegiances to laws by local, state or federal governments that hit them in the pocketbooks.

They just didn’t have to, they feltsovereign citizens owed allegiance only to themselves!

Now this cultural war currently raging with us has been off-‘n-on for decades, more-‘n-more my thoughts are. Earlier in the ‘60s when Civil Rights first came up, it was fragmented. Coalescing here-‘n-there in time and space. Some left-wing; some right.

But since the late ’70s, it’s been confined to members of one political party, the GOP. Why?

And no, I’m just not picking on Republicans here. I’ve had my share of failures in life and hopefully the experiences have given me better insight and appreciation for a fuller life.

I once threw up my hands, i.e., on editing and publishing a small weekly newspaper chain in DFW, and “high-tailed-it” 500 miles to the Texas border instead!

My partner and I’d gone thru bankruptcy; I was freshly divorced. And I just sought a fresh start in Life! Simply waved the white flag to all of Life’s challenges — including marriage and making tons of money!

But as a former multiple award-winning, 20-year journalist, too, self-exiling from DFW to an unknown patch of desert in Far West Texas’ borderlands — to take an editor’s position on a small weekly newspaper — is hardly the polished role of movie scripts, either.

Couple years later, I even had to buy the paper to save my job! Owner was cutting bait and moving out, and I just didn’t feel like singing On the Road Again while still meeting and making new friends.

And, yes, it got worse. This paper mostly was an English paper. In a small border community with light industry (few good jobs), and largely filled with Spanish-speaking residents only, Latinos.

Ad revenue — the staple of newspapers — was scarce. So I had to get a 2nd job eventually to help make payments on my fix.

Only opening I could find was a Presidio County precinct JP position. I applied for it. Throughout my long newspaper career, after all, I’d lived off facts and stories I’d gleaned from JP courts, courts of record.

So why not take a shot at it? I’d reasoned.

Well, commissioners liked my education, and, too, I’d been consistently fair in reporting their goals and activities with the paper then. So…I got the job! It was a turn-around point for me.

Few years later came a wonderful new marriage and a year or so later, a wonderful daughter. Income from the 2nd job saved me at a critical time. Thank you, Commissioner Juan!

Now I’m retired and we’ve moved upstream a few hundred miles to El Paso.

In the ’90s, though, reflecting for perspective, city judges and county JP judges like myself throughout the state were confronted with people who claimed an even stranger conspiracy — e.g., they were sovereign citizens.

They falsely believed they were granted (among many other freebies) unrestricted traveling rights by each state’s Uniform Code of Commerce (U.C.C.) — and thus were not subject to national, state or local laws regulating traffic or commerce.

Here’s a bit, i.e., from an FBI file: “…By announcing themselves as sovereign citizens, they are emancipated from the responsibilities of being a U.S. citizen, including paying taxes, possessing a state driver’s license, or obeying the law.

And, yes, I had a worrisome group of these in Presidio. Remember well after a couple of years when one of them was brought into my office handcuffed one day (into this little building, above), by a county deputy, for a bad license plate.

Instead of a normal auto license plate on his little ol’ pickup, subject’d posted a cardboard placard on its front bumper — which boldly read, U.C.C. All I Need!

The deputy — who preferred simply going by the nickname, Budah — shrugged at me, and said something like, “I didn’t know what to do with him! He claims I don’t have jurisdiction to give him a ticket over that stupid license plate!”

Let’s call this poor guy “David”. From later experiences with him — yes, there were a few more trying times — I know he kept a Bible in his home to read at times. But as far as I know, over the years, he never attended any local church services.

Thus, I don’t know that I’d call him a religious person. A civil obstructionist maybe. Seething in his vanity!

And as a “sovereign citizen,” he was free to travel without restrictions??

Carte blanche, readers: Is this old era the genesis of where we are now?

Our progress road was re-routed here, after all! After this large blimp of sovereign protestors on our radar screen.

Society’s long-established commercial and cultural interdependence trend then — e.g., the act of culturally weaving ourselves in and out of each other’s lives (for a stronger fabric), to advance society’s economic development — meant nothing to U.C.C. David!

His was from the original Creation: Everybody’s a free-floating electron! Go where valences pull ‘ya!

Any possible seed of benevolence in this thinking?

Well, as a gringo, he certainly didn’t end up in this community as a lifter! He was both a rock and an island. Embedded in a trailer park he was purchasing, in his own La-La land!

What he did, basically, was nobody’s business but his! he felt.

And here he was before me. Whoosh!

Now in Texas, someone being taken directly to a judge on a Class C violation is called an instander, or instanter. Usually rare. These people are changing the meaning of “routine traffic stop,” though.

A good-citizen driver, i.e., when stopped for an alleged traffic violation, and cited, will take a citation copy issued by the officer without making much of a fuss.

The driver signs the ticket as a type of signature bond — a promise that later they’ll take care of it at the designated court. Pay as guilty, pay as part of a requested probationary period, or challenge it for trial, to be dismissed, say.

Thus they’re released from momentary custody — again, on a signature bond — at that point. And both parties then go their separate ways.

Not so with mighty UCC David! Hell, he didn’t need a bond!

Thus Budha brought him to me.

And it took only a couple of minutes or so to realize I had a different combatant here!

I’d repeatedly advised him the state was charging him with false vehicle license plate, and if he wanted to challenge it, he was entitled to his day in court.

But here-‘n-now was not the moment for it. The state has a right to have an attorney present before judges can dispose of these cases.

Under the law he was brought in on, I explained, he could only be released from custody under the arrangements of pleading to the charge.

If choosing innocent and wishing to contest it, you simply sign a signature bond for the amount of the fine and court costs, to guarantee your court appearance later. And you’re gone!

Easy as candy!

But not for David!

You just don’t realize something here! he more or less replied. This officer, and this court, has no jurisdiction over me! I am a U.C.C. sovereign citizen!!

Keep quiet, instinct tells you, and breathe heavily when confronted with something like this. Your brain needs the air!

And sure enough, the answer came to me quickly.

Without further adieu, I simply turned and wrote out a jail commitment order. And handed it to the officer.

Mumbling “Git ‘im outta here,” no doubt! Or perhaps, “Where’d ‘ya git this idiot!?

Now there are 3,857 square miles of mostly rugged, mountainous, Chihuahuan Desert terrain in sparsely populated Presidio County.

It has only one certified jail, though, in Marfa, the county seat 60 miles to the north — which has half the population as Presidio, a border town in the southern end.

The odd situation was a result of sweeping new, expensive jail standards enacted across the state in the ’70s. If a county could only afford one certified jail, it had to be in the county seat.

Thus remotely located Presidio lost its jail. Kaput! And it with twice the number of people!

In higher-altitude Marfa to the north – renowned for its minimalism arts scenes, i.e. — driving down to Presidio routinely is called going Down South, due to winding down and thru a mountain chain along the way. For 60 miles.

And in Presidio, traveling up to Marfa 60 miles back thru the same semi-extreme terrain is going Up North. About 2,100 ft. higher.

The only public transportation between the two cities is a bus that comes into Presidio just before midnight each night. And departs about 8 a.m. the next day.

Presidio’s remote reality, it is. All just basic, cold facts of life here. Usually doesn’t amount to piddlin’.

But at that next moment — e.g., turning and glancing at UCC Dave after handing the paper to Budah — I felt awash by this Presidio reality! I’d caught it from glimpsing the prisoner’s suddenly changed demeanor!

I’d actually caught the magnanimity of Presidio’s desert setting — e.g., a mountainous valley’s prosperity but its harsh reality location in certain circumstances, too — reflected off U.C.C. David‘s eyes and face in that moment of turning!

He, too, now was about to be isolated. Up North. The coming doom was clinging to him. Arrogance quickly’d turned into a cloud of dark worry.

He was going Up North.

And the little pickup he’d been driving … Was to be impounded, locally — 60 miles Down South from where he’d be when he got out of jail Up North!

How was he going to get back home? And [no doubt] who was going to take care of his little, precious dog? (Yeah, he had one.)

Presidio Reality had shaken David, yes! No longer could he lean into Life as an automaton! His situation was changing.

Indeed, he stood limp like a cornered rat!

And, yes, I was too angry to smile. Or even to think of it!

In this old county annex building, after all, stuck as it is in a community way out in the vastness of Far West Texas — maybe a mile from the Rio Grande and the Mexican border — the mighty U.C.C. David appeared to’ve just used up all his freedom rope!

Does humanity have any cards left to play? Or are we only concerned with retribution?

Indeed, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.,  “The Arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward justice” may just as well have been tattooed across this guy’s forehead. At this point…

The old Annex courtroom fell silent. That I’d handed his jail commitment order over to Budah — for continued prisoner custody to the jail in Marfa — finally had shaken David. And now he was actually thinking.

Complete silence in the room, ‘cept for the shuffling of feet, as Budah checked to insure he had all his needed confinement papers. He was preparing to depart.

UCC David was going to be kept in custody and taken Up North! And locked in jail!

The commitment order stated the total amount of bond money David could be released under. So he could come back Down South — at his convenience someday — and plead his case in court.

It was as fair to both parties as I could put together.

But as David was being escorted out the door, he stopped, though. Head down, like he was thinking. Hard. A brainstorm!

And then he turned back to address me at the bench, one more time.

“Judge, I’ve got a perfectly good license plate behind that piece of cardboard!” is how I remember his words. “There on the front of my vehicle!”

Oh, surprise!

He wasn’t a good-to-the-end, genuine sovereign citizen after all!

Instead, he was what I’ve long suspected most of these oddball protestors and militia people are now, dyed-in-the-wool yáhoos!

Yáhoos are difficult, but there’s no real divine drive behind their outlaw acts — e.g., they’re not stupid! In their idleness they’ve just been sippin’ too much bad tea! It’s affected their thinking!

So I stared hard at David for a few seconds. Damn!

Glanced at Budah again. Same shrug. More silence.

Then I more or less asked Prisoner David, OK, so you’re willing to plead to the ticket, not showing a valid plate, as well as pay the fine and court costs — the amount, say, of what could’ve been your bond if you’re really wanting to go to court later and contest this?

And, too, I added, you’re willing to walk out there with Budah and rip all that damn cardboard crap off your front bumper! Show him your damn license plate!!? And don’t ever put cardboard back on there again?!!? Is that a reasonable request?!

“Oh sure, Judge! I’d be glad to do it!”

And I’d bet I took a big sigh here, closed my eyes, and rubbed my forehead a bit.

Then I looked at Budah, to make sure he understood this proposal I was throwing out, and was ok with it?

The option, e.g., to taking Down South‘s sole deputy off the streets to drive UCC David 60 miles Up North to the county jail in Marfa, was to adjudicate the Class C misdemeanor here-‘n-now.

Budah shrugged again, but nodded yes — and then took the handcuffs off of Prisoner David.

Defendent then reached in his pocket, took out some money, walked over to the court clerk and paid what became his fine and court cost.

Getting his receipt, he then walked out the door with the deputy to take the U.C.C. cardboard sign off the front of his license plate.

Budah brought it back in, and laid it on my desk. I waved goodbye at Dave, standing in the doorway. Case closed.

And then he drove away in his pickup.

A sovereign citizen resistor was just another yáhoo!

If ‘ya put ’em in jail — or threaten to remove that certain extra freedom they claim from their overdrive thinking — it unclogs a thought channel in them. They can function.

And civil decency wins.

— 30 —

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