'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. Dennis Logan, of St. Peters, a "common-law" advocate, says many members probably have seen hard times, court foreclosures and bankruptcies. Such close contact with the courts, he says, allowed them to see their unfairness firsthand. "They are fed up with the system," said Logan, a former farmer and insurance man who declared bankruptcy in the early 1980s. Curtis John Iberg recently tried to file a series of liens against an officer of the Central Bank of Highland and the bank's lawyer. The bank last year tried to foreclose on Iberg's mortgage and seize a combine, tractor, trucks and other pieces of farming equipment. The suit is still pending in Madison County. Iberg could not be reached Friday. Sociologist Campbell traces the movement to the farm crisis of the early 1980s. A slumping economy and sky-high interest rates produced a rash of foreclosures in rural America. Some rural residents, who had always nourished a streak of independence, began seeing a conspiracy, said Campbell. "They thought of government as being the villains," said Campbell, who lost his own southwest Missouri farm during the period. A lot of rural communities are still under stress, he said, and the effects are felt in the small towns where many movement members live. `Seismic Wave Effect' The Coalition for Human Dignity is an Oregon-based organization that tracks what it calls hate groups. Coalition spokesman Steven Gardner says the "common-law" movement is growing rapidly and is active in at least 30 states. "It's a seismic wave e ffect," emanating from small towns in the Northwest, Mountain States and Midwest. The group's legal doctrine was developed by the United Sovereigns of America in Oklahoma, says Gardner. It's now spread through training sessions across the country. Logan says he expects 50 to 100 prospective members to attend a training session in Quincy, Ill., this weekend. Logan says they'll pay $75 per individual and $100 per couple for the two-day affair, which will culminate in a "common-law" trial. Logan says he takes no pay for teaching such sessions, although he sometimes is reimbursed for expenses. "Common-law court" activists say they draw authority from the "original organic national constitution" of the United States. They believe the government abandoned the Constitution in 1933, when Congress passed an emergency powers act to deal with the Great Depression. Movement members complain of courts that they say have become exclusive clubs for judges and lawyers, where ordinary citizens are at a disadvantage. The hubbub in Lincoln County, for instance, began when Judge Patrick Flynn refused to let Clifford Hobbs represent a teen-ager in a minor speeding case. Hobbs, who is not a lawyer, then went to "common-law court" and got a $10 million lien against the judge. The defendant, 17-year-old Amanda Lenk, demanded that her speeding trial be moved to "common-law court." When the judge refused, Lenk's father filed a $1.5 million "common-law" lien against the judge, prosecutor and the highway patrolman who issued the ticket. The movement has developed a rather elaborate legal doctrine of its own. Its filings tend to be lengthy documents, filled with Latin and legalese. The "common-law" movement has some fairly well-known supporters. "If these liens are phony, so are federal tax liens," says prominent tax protester Irwin Schiff. Schiff is the author of several books claiming that payment of federal income tax is "voluntary," and he served four years in prison term for refusing to pay. His books are widely cited by tax protesters and right-wing movements that challenge the legitimacy of government. "There a growing belief that we need people's courts, because the regular courts are corrupt," he says. He cites the low rankings accorded lawyers and politicians in polls of public esteem. "If you put together a lawyer and a politician, what do you have? A federal judge," says Schiff, who was in St. Louis last week to lecture at Washington University Law School. "Common-law court" activists, he says, know the way the law should be. "They have some knowledge of the Constitution. The average man knows nothing," he says. Now out of jail, Baugh is got compliments from an unlikely source - the judge who imprisoned him. "I admire his convictions," the judge said. "He's an intelligent man who certainly believes what he believes." Baugh was unavailable for comment. Authorities said he has no telephone.

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