Sovereign citizen Timothy Garrison of Mount Vernon went to federal prison for 42 months a few weeks back for filing false tax returns and threatening to arrest Skagit County officials for arresting him. His basic problem was that the government had a jail and he didn't. Nonetheless, his side is winning more converts who drive around with homemade licenses and believe that the laws of America don't apply to them.
"For many extremists," says the Law Center's Mark Potok, "President Obama is the new symbol of all that's wrong with the country - the Kenyan president, the secret Muslim who is causing our country's decline. The election season's overheated political rhetoric is adding fuel to the fire. The more polarized the political scene, the more people at the extremes."
His study shows extremist groups grew to a record 1,018 in 2011, compared to 1,002 in 2010. The greatest growth, 55 percent, was in the patriot movement, which includes the sovereigns, armed militias and others who consider the federal government their enemy, he says.
Not everyone agrees with the center's assessments - immigration reformers claim SPLC's designations are unfair and unreliable, and Reason complains that the center is even lumping in pickup artists with hate groups. As well, SPLC said the anti-Muslim group Faith Freedom, based in Bellevue, is a hate group, but members tell KING-5 they are "anti-Islam," not anti-Muslim, opposing the ideology, not the individual.
Across Washington state, hate groups grew to 16 by the Law Center's count, three more than in 2010, a mix of organizations that ran from skinheads and white nationalists to black separatists and something called radical traditional catholicism, who nationally comprise "the largest single group of anti-Semites in America." (Complete list here).
Washington also now has 50 patriot organizations that appear to have footholds in almost every county, springing up in small communities around the state such as Satsop, a wide spot off the highway in Grays Harbor County, home to the Church of Sovereigns: Sacred Family Temple of the Living Saint, and to Sovereign-Citizenship.net. "Warning," the site greets visitors, "only American civilians are allowed to browse this site." If you're a foreign agent or don't believe in American common law, you "are not welcome here. Leave now! Go away!"
Tim Garrison, the Skagit sovereign, was a believer in the common law as well. According to his enemies - federal prosecutors - the larger movement to which he belongs is known as the Assemblies on the Counties at Large, which believes common law was the original American legal system but at some point was secretly replaced by a system
based on admiralty law.
They further believe that judges are a part of the ongoing conspiracy that allows for the admiralty law system to remain in force, and that sovereigns are slaves to the government. The Assemblies have an armed wing, called the "County Rangers." County Rangers are required to own firearms, and possess and display realistic looking badges and credentials.
Assemblies members often engage in tax-related fraud schemes, issue false financial instruments, and engage in real estate fraud, all crimes that they justify through their claim that the current government is illegitimate, say the federal enemy.
In Garrison's case, he helped prepare more than fifty false tax returns for his fellow believers and others, resulting in a tax loss to the U.S. treasury of up to $2.5 million, prosecutors and the IRS estimated.
Unfortunately for Garrison, an accountant, the current government had the meaningful numbers - in cops, judges and jails. As U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez told Garrison, an ex-con, at sentencing last month, "You are free to believe anything. You are free to question authority. What you don't have is the ability to break the law and not suffer the consequences."