Yes, Sovereign Citizens, You Do Need a Driver's License

Image:  Merrrittt via Wikimedia Commons
Image: Merrrittt via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on January 26, 2022. Today, March 13 2023, we’re revisiting this article after news that Chase Allan, a follower of the so-called Sovereign Citizen movement, was killed by police during a traffic stop stemming from a fake license plate Allan had on his car. Read on to learn more about the Sovereign Citizen movement in our original article below from 2022.

A urine-drinking anti-COVID-19 activist is currently driving across the country with the intention of making a citizen’s arrest of every Democratic governor while warning Americans about the “bio-weapon” hiding in the vaccine. Are you ready for the really crazy part? He’s doing it without a driver’s license.

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It seems “Vaccine Police” leader Christopher Key also subscribes to the sovereign citizen mindset, according to the Daily Beast, which follows Key’s exploits closely:

“I travel,” Key told The Daily Beast late on Monday evening, making the pointless distinction between “traveling” and “driving.”

“My car is not a car. My car is my wagon, with wagon wheels,” he continued, insisting he doesn’t need a driver’s license to operate his car, which is currently wrapped with graphics claiming the COVID-19 vaccine a “bio-weapon.”

“You only drive if you are committing commerce,” Key added. “The only people that need a driver’s license are truck drivers, Uber drivers, FedEx drivers, but if you understand your constitutional rights, you have the ‘life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.’”

The anti-vax leader, who swears by drinking copious amounts of his own urine, added: “I am a free man living on the land.” “There is no crime,” he said when asked about the possibility of police pulling him over and asking for a driver’s license. In the United States, where Key is “traveling,” one must have a valid driver’s license to operate a motor vehicle.

So what the heck is the reason Key thinks the average Joe doesn’t need a driver’s license? It has to do with a movement called sovereign citizenship, adherents of which use fake legal gobbledygook and flawed logic to claim they don’t need to follow certain inconvenient state or federal laws. Here’s how the University of North Carolina’s School of Government defines a sovereign citizen:

“Sovereign citizen” is a catchall phrase referring to a variety of anti-government individuals and groups who share some common beliefs and behaviors. The organizations to which many sovereign citizens belong have a variety of names: Moorish Nation, The Aware Group, Washitaw Nation, the North Carolina American Republic, Republic of United States of America, etc. The same views may be embraced by Freeman, Freemen on the Land, Sons of Liberty, and Aryan Nation. Many sovereign citizens may not affiliate with any of those groups. In one way or another, though, all sovereign citizens, whether tied to an organization or not, adhere to a view that the existing American governmental structure, including the courts and law enforcement, is illegitimate and that they, the sovereign citizens, retain an individual common law identity exempting them from the authority of those fraudulent government institutions.

Sovereign citizens may issue their own driver’s licenses and vehicle tags, create and file their own liens against government officials who cross them, question judges about the validity of their oaths, challenge the applicability of traffic laws to them and, in extreme cases, resort to violence to protect their imagined rights. They speak an odd quasi-legal language and believe that by not capitalizing names and by writing in red and using certain catch phrases they can avoid any liability in our judicial system. They even think they can lay claim to vast sums of money held by the United States Treasury, based on the premise that the government has secretly pledged them as security for the country’s debts. Based on these beliefs, and a twisted understanding of the Uniform Commercial Code, they try various schemes that they think discharge them from responsibility for their debts.

Boy, don’t you just want to be cornered at a party by one of these folks? It may not shock you to find out that the conspiratorially minded person and sovereign citizens are often (but not always) one in the same. Even less shocking is the history of sovereign citizens movement, which grew out of the super racist Christian Identity movement. These people have a great deal of distrust of any form of government above the county sheriff, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Sovereign citizenship is now embraced by a wider audience than just extreme racists, but the philosophy does frequently appear side-by-side with other conspiratorial belief systems.

While they are known for filing frivolous law suits and wasting judges’ time, they aren’t always harmless cranks, especially when in cars. A 2010 traffic stop in West Memphis resulted in a shoot out leaving two dead sovereign citizens and two wounded police officers. Just last year, a group of 11 sovereign citizens were pulled over on I-95 in Massachusetts carrying long guns. An hours-long stand off with police ensued, the Associated Press reports. A lot of sovereign citizen terms also pop up in testimony from January 6 defendants.

Folks with this kind of philosophy think they are quite slick and they’ve come up with multiple reasons to justify breaking basic traffic laws like obtaining a driver’s license or car registration. If you look into sovereign citizens’ wild claims, even a little bit, they quickly fall apart. So let’s do that!

1. I’m not driving, I’m traveling

Sovereign citizens love to quibble over the real meaning of words. A favorite one is to claim that there is a distinction between traveling and driving. It’s true, Americans have a right to travel enshrined in the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution, which states “...citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.” It was meant to protect out-of-state Americans from being discriminated against as they travel from state to state, according to Cornell Law School.

It all comes down to definitions that sovereign citizens decide to use. From the University of Montana Law Review:

Looking to the terms “travel” and “traveler,” Sovereign Citizens believe they “refer[ ] to one who uses a conveyance to go from one place to another, and include[s] all those who use the highways as a matter of Right” because “the phrase ‘for hire’ never occurs.”117 Conversely, the term “driver” is defined as “[o]ne employed in conducting a coach, carriage, wagon, or other vehicle[,]” and therefore “[it] should be self-evident that this individual could not be ‘traveling’ on a journey, but is using the road as a place of business.”118 Likewise, the terms “automobile” and “motor vehicle” denote special meaning. “The word ‘automobile’ connotes a pleasure vehicle designed for the transportation of persons on highways,” and “is private property in use for private purposes.”119

Whereas “motor vehicle” is defined in 18 U.S.C. § 31 as “every description of carriage or other contrivance propelled or drawn by mechanical power and used for commercial purposes on the highways in the transportation of passengers, passengers and property, or property or cargo.” Looking to these definitions, Sovereign Citizens deduce that“[t]o state you are ‘driving’ is to unwittingly place yourself in admiralty or commercial jurisdiction[, and as] a sovereign being, you never need surrender your rights and exchange them for privileges.”

Travel is a personal right protected by the Constitution. Sovereign citizens say that laws regarding driver’s licenses only apply to commercial operations, as no law can be made restricting travel. However state laws requiring a license do not state anything about driving or traveling at all. As an example, the law from the Michigan Vehicle Code Act of 1949, which describes folks seeking a license as: “applicant for an operator’s license or chauffeur’s license to operate a noncommercial motor vehicle.”

Driving is never mentioned as an activity, only the operation of a motor vehicle. You can walk, run, bike or jog all you want on public roads and across state lines, but if you want to operate a motor vehicle, a several thousand pound machine capable of over 100 mph, you do need to be licensed to do so.

2. I don’t need registration because this isn’t a car

You may have noticed Keys referred to his car as his wagon, on wagon wheels. Which... sick. Are those aftermarket, bro? Of course, this is more redefining of words. Many sovereign citizens will call their cars their “conveyance” as there is no law requiring the registrations of conveyances. Eh? Eh? You buying it yet? Officer?

Homemade license plates and fake plates tags are common in the sovereign citizen world. Many believe any interaction with the apparatus of government opens themselves up to legitimizing the system and its hold over them. Some send their social security cards back to the government, as if that does anything other than annoy some civil servant who now has to toss it.

The website FreedomFromGovernment sells fake sovereign citizen plates for only $99.50. It’ll likely cost you much, much more in traffic tickets when you get caught driving with these fake plate. Speaking of which...

3. Cops have no right to stop me

Traffic stops and DUI checkpoints give sovereign citizens another chance to bring their strange philosophy into the real world. There are tons of YouTube videos of smirking sovereign citizens asking cops “am I being detained?” over and over again, if the cop is lucky. Montana Law Review, again, has a great breakdown on why sovereign citizens think they’re in the right:

First, the “Government—in requiring the people to obtain drivers licenses, and accepting vehicle inspections and DUI/DWI roadblocks without question—is restricting, and therefore violating, the people’s common law right to travel.”133 Second, the police may not stop a vehicle or detain an individual absent being able to articulate a reasonable suspicion of a crime being committed.134 Third, the government cannot tax individuals for exercising their constitutional rights,135 and speed limits or checkpoints are “simply an unlawful tax or impost on travel” under Crandall v. Nevada. 136

They will frequently refuse to sign citations, claiming they have “no contract” with the officer. If they do sign it, they may add “under duress.” Some cheeky sovereign citizens will bill the officer for the time they spent pulled over, according to Police1. Should a sovereign citizen actually get dragged into court on a traffic violation, they deny the authority of the judges as well, claiming a gold fringe on an American flag in a court room means that Judge is operating under some form of limited Admiralty law or proof that the government declared martial or “kings law” instead of operating under common law or natural law. Common law is god given right to exist, while Admiralty law turns Americans into prisoners of a corrupt system, according to the SPL. They also claim that the United States became a corporation following the ratification of the 14th Amendment.

It’s less a defense, and more willful ignorance of how the real world works full of double-speak they seem to have not bothered to even Google before using as a defense. And it also definitely does not work. All you will do trying these antics is earn the ire of police officers and judges alike. Never a good decision when you’re in the system. For instance, Pauline Bauer, a defendant in the Jan. 6 insurrection, could probably be out of jail right now but she fell back on this sovereign citizen nonsense and was recently denied pretrial release.

Anyway, I don’t know how illuminating this explanation was. It’s honestly nearly 2,000 words of nonsense. I spent all day reading and writing about this stuff, you spent some time reading it, and I guarantee we’re both worse off for it.

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