'Common-Law Courts' Grow from Conviction

Article excerpt

David Baugh went to jail for his belief that he's a "sovereign American."

Baugh, of Sullivan, turned in his drivers license in 1991. He took the license plates off his pickup, replacing them with a sign that read, "Sovereign American Citizen, Liberty or Death."

He refused to pay a $25 fine after getting ticketed. Instead, he fired off a barrage of documents proclaiming himself a common-law citizen over whom the courts lack authority. Baugh, 52, represented himself at trial and gave his own closing argument. The "common-law court" movement is growing, he told the jury. While it's peaceful at the moment, it "may end up being a bloody revolution," said Baugh, according to the judge who tried the case. A jury found him guilty and lowered the boom, prescribing 27 months in prison. Baugh is out of jail now. And as a self-styled sovereign citizen, he is getting a lot of company these days. After years in obscurity, the "common-law court" movement seems to be growing and getting lots of attention in rural Missouri and Illinois. In the past month, movement members have filed multimillion-dollar liens against the property of judges, prosecutors, policemen, businessmen and bankers from Columbia, Mo., to Edwardsville. The liens, filed in recorder of deeds offices, have the potential to cloud property titles and mar credit ratings. `Our One Supreme Court' Few supporters go as far as Baugh in abandoning drivers licenses and plates. But members frequently declare themselves "sovereign" citizens or "freeman characters" immune from state and federal courts. Instead, they set up their own courts, often called Our One Supreme Court. They issue summonses, conduct trails and file liens. Associate Circuit Judge Michael Brown of Franklin County drew the movement's ire for sending Baugh to prison. A "common-law court" tried him in absentia for treason, said Brown, who died Saturday of injuries suffered in an auto accident near St. Clair, Mo., Friday night. "I was tried in Florida by, I think, something called the We the People Court," Brown said. "I was convicted, and there is a warrant for my arrest by the state militia." The "common-law courts" movement in Missouri and Illinois has produced no violence, and movement leaders say they plan none. They deny any association with militias or the Freemen, who are in the third week of an armed standoff with FBI agents at a Montana ranch. Law enforcement officials also say they can't directly tie the St. Louis area movement to more radical groups. But they say the groups share many of the same beliefs. "They rise from the steam of a similar cauldron," said Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, who is considering criminal charges against movement members. Those convictions include a belief that the government and courts have abandoned the U.S. Constitution and have no legal authority over movement members. The Freemen, for instance, also filed liens against government officials. Members of the Montana group, however, are also suspected in a massive check scheme. Sovereign Business System In Missouri, state officials this month filed action against Sovereign Business System, which recruited hundreds of members in rural Missouri. The Texas-based operation also denies the authority of government, and state officials say it may have bilked Missourians out of $2 million in a phony investment and travel scheme. Its leader filed papers against Missouri officials in a Texas "common-law court." Officials, however, have not alleged links between Sovereign and the "common-law" movement in Missouri. Sociology Professor Rex Campbell, who has studied the movement, says many members are peaceful, hard-working people who have been driven to desperation by economic troubles in rural America. "Most of them are in extreme distress," says Campbell, who teaches at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Movement members blame the government and courts. …