What we know about ‘sovereign citizens’ in Utah, after Farmington shooting draws attention to movement

Sovereign citizens are “definitely more prevalent than we think,” a former Salt Lake County Clerk said.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) The FBI and Utah Department of Public Safety declined to estimate how many sovereign citizens may be in Utah. But a former Salt Lake County Clerk said they are “definitely more prevalent than we think."

The fatal police shooting in Farmington this month drew attention to “sovereign citizens,” a loose network of right-wing extremists who reject government and law enforcement.

Their rejection of government bleeds into their own ranks — they have no formal, nationwide membership rolls, like some militia groups. They don’t wear group uniforms, or patches, and they don’t typically gather together at large meetings, as retired FBI agent Greg Rogers put it.

“Sovereign citizen groups are often small,” said Rogers, who spent a decade investigating such individuals. “It can be one family. It can be a group of very close friends. They don’t like to congregate.”

That’s one reason why it’s largely unknown how prevalent sovereign citizens are in Utah, even if law enforcement is generally aware that they exist. The FBI and Utah Department of Public Safety declined to estimate for The Salt Lake Tribune.

“They think the government is watching them all the time,” Rogers said. “So they’re very, very insular in that way.”

But based on his expertise, Rogers said Utah has a “good number” of sovereign citizens, whom the FBI considers a domestic terrorism movement.

“We have more than our share for the size of the state we’re in,” Rogers said.

On the front lines of ‘paper terrorism’

It remains unclear if 25-year-old Chase Allan, who Farmington police fatally shot March 1, considered himself a sovereign citizen. Allan was killed minutes after an officer pulled him over for having an illegitimate license plate, police have said.

In place of a legitimate plate was a placard, which bore a sovereign citizen symbol — a clue that has drawn speculation about a potential connection to the movement, and whether such a connection may have contributed to an escalation between him and police.

(Farmington City Police Department) In an image taken from body camera footage, an illegitimate license plate is seen on the vehicle of Chase Allen. Allen was shot and killed by police March 1, 2023, following a confrontation related to a traffic stop prompted by the plate.

Even if Allan was associated with the movement, few sovereign citizens resort to violence, Rogers said, though it can happen. In Nevada in 2014, a married couple authorities later determined were associated with the sovereign citizen movement ambushed two Las Vegas officers eating lunch at a Cicis Pizza, killing both.

Rogers advised that the general public largely doesn’t need to be concerned about sovereign citizens, though, because they are typically “not looking to do something aggressive on their own.”

[Read more: Farmington police release bodycam video from fatal shooting of Chase Allan]

Instead, sovereign citizens are more commonly known to harass government employees with so-called “paper terrorism,” filing frivolous lawsuits, bogus liens and other documents without sound legal basis as a way to intimidate people, according to the FBI.

In Davis County, where Farmington is located, the county attorney’s office is on the front lines. The office has seen hundreds of court filings and motions from apparent sovereign citizens over the years, an official said, including some from Allan’s mother, Diane Killian-Allan, records show.

After she was cited in April 2022 for driving without a license and not registering her car, Killian-Allan filed 20 such motions — including one “very large packet of paperwork” — and called the court clerk at least five times, according to court documents. Killian-Allan did not respond to a request for comment.

Davis County officials said that both Allan and his mother had also previously sent documents to the county clerk’s office renouncing their U.S. citizenship — indications that they may have been believers in the movement.

‘More prevalent than we think’

In his role as the Davis County clerk/auditor, Curtis Koch has also had multiple run-ins with sovereign citizens.

He recalled a man who once demanded that all mention of him be removed from county records, something Koch said he could not legally do.

“Then he started sending me bills, saying that if I didn’t comply, I would have to pay personally X amount of dollars,” said Koch, who now only serves as the county auditor, after the clerk/auditor’s office was divided last year.

In time, the man’s demands “amped up,” Koch recalled — not just “past-due” notices, but threats to hold him “personally accountable.” Other sovereign citizens have sent Koch “veiled threats,” he said, including one who told Koch that if he “acted like a horse thief,” he should be “treated as a horse thief.” In the Old West, the punishment for stealing horses was sometimes death.

In Salt Lake County, former clerk Sherrie Swensen — who retired in January after serving eight terms — said her office regularly received visits and letters from sovereign citizens declaring that they were not required to obey laws.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said her office regularly received visits and letters from sovereign citizens declaring that they were not required to obey laws.

“It would be maybe once every six months or so. Not a huge number,” she said. “But it is definitely more prevalent than we think.”

Swensen recalled one man who made his own passport, “and he actually had a bloody thumb print on it, if you can imagine.” (Sovereign citizens often use finger or thumb prints in blood, experts say.) “At that point,” Swensen said, “one of my staff was a little bit concerned, because he was pretty aggressive.”

About a decade ago, one self-proclaimed sovereign citizen came in and told Swensen that he was going to call a “citizens jury” to arrest and try various elected officials, and that he wanted to file papers to that effect. When Swensen told him she couldn’t accept his papers before speaking to an attorney, “I remember him telling me, ‘I would hate to have to handcuff you and put you in custody.’”

She laughed it off, and thought it was “ridiculous.” But after she reported the incident to the county attorney’s office, she learned that the man had a violent criminal history. She hadn’t given much thought to the fact that he was wearing a long, black trench coat on a hot day, but she later wondered if he might have been concealing a weapon.

“I think that’s the X Factor right there,” Koch said. “You don’t know where these folks are on the [threat] spectrum.”

Is more police training needed?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Even if Chase Allan was associated with the sovereign citizen movement, few resort to violence, a retired FBI agent said, though it can happen.

According to Utah Highway Patrol Capt. Alex Lepley, state troopers are trained to recognize and interact with sovereign citizens specifically — training that began long before the Farmington police shooting.

“Our troopers do come in contact with them periodically,” Lepley said. “So we want to make sure we give our guys the advantage where possible, and get them current training on the sovereign citizen movement — what to look out for, things like that.”

UHP troopers are trained to recognize certain sovereign citizen symbols, such as the flag on Allan’s placard — which featured blue stars in a white field, with vertical red-and-white stripes — on either similar fake license plates, or on stickers, Lepley said. A sign proclaiming that their vehicle is “not for hire,” which was also stated on Allan’s placard, is common.

Sometimes, they display a yellow Gadsden flag — which features a snake over the words “Don’t tread on me.” (The couple who killed two officers in Las Vegas placed a Gadsden flag on the body of one of the officers.) When approached by officers, sovereign citizens often refuse to get out of their cars, and claim that they do not need a driver license, car registration or car insurance, Lepley added.

But not all law enforcement agencies are as up-to-speed on sovereign citizens, Rogers believes. “And I used to do the training,” he said.

Farmington police Chief Eric Johnsen for instance has previously said it’s unclear whether the officer who initially pulled Allan over March 1 recognized the symbol on Allan’s placard.

“All I can tell you is none of us are experts in these things,” Johnsen told The Tribune a few days after the shooting. “I mean, I’m a 20-year officer and, literally, in the thousands of traffic stops that I’ve made in my career — thousands — I’ve only encountered a couple of people affiliated like this.”

Rogers emphasized that he was not trying to criticize Farmington officers, who were “just doing their job.” He called the shooting a “tragic situation that didn’t need to go down that way.”

“It’s a matter of training and knowing what you’re dealing with,” Rogers said.

Still, Lepley noted that “anybody can be a threat” to an officer, “and obviously, not all of the contacts with sovereign citizens turn out the way that the Farmington incident did — fortunately.”

Sometimes, sovereign citizens comply with troopers, but say that they are under duress as they do so, he said. Others don’t comply at all. “Each situation is unique.”

“We focus a lot on de-escalation,” Lepley said. “That wouldn’t be unique to the sovereign citizen movement.”

Rogers, who teaches a criminal justice course at Utah Valley University, said that the Farmington police shooting may prompt local law enforcement agencies across the state to seek training specific to sovereign citizens. It’s also possible the FBI’s Salt Lake City office may reach out to departments to suggest such training, noting in his experience, “it would be very typical.”

Lepley volunteered that UHP is “happy to share” sovereign citizen training materials with local police — if asked. “But we don’t specifically go out and teach other agencies.”

As of last week, no local police agencies had requested any such help from the Department of Public Safety.