Colorado Prosecutors Hope To Send A Message With ‘Sovereign Citizen’ Convictions

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4min 48sec
<p>Allison Sherry/CPR News</p>
<p>Bruce Doucette is sentenced.</p>
Photo: Bruce Doucette Sentenced 2 (AS)
Bruce Doucette is sentenced.

With the sentencing of Bruce Doucette, one of the most prominent “sovereign citizens” in the country, Colorado prosecutors say they are sending a message nationally that threatening local government officials will not be tolerated.

The state attorney general’s office is in the midst of taking to court nine people, including Doucette, who papered the offices of state judges, district attorneys, sheriffs and even Gov. John Hickenlooper with false legal documents. They’re charged with racketeering, conspiracy and other felony counts.

“I can't get into their mind as to whether they thought we would ever hold them accountable,” said Robert Shapiro, first assistant attorney general and lead prosecutor on the cases.

The defendants, led by Doucette, Stephen Nalty and Steven Byfield, consider themselves sovereigns; they reject all local and state laws because they are not in the U.S. Constitution.

Doucette gave himself the title “superior court judge” and traveled around the state trying to organize groups to fight with local governments. Those targeted included sheriffs, judges, county officials who enforce code violations and district attorneys who prosecuted people the sovereigns deemed sympathetic.

One of their victims included former Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett. In 2015, Garnett started receiving phony arrest warrants and documents that claimed Garnett owed money to the sovereigns for collecting his government salary. They were often signed with a bloody fingerprint.

“Some of the documents claimed to be warrants for my arrest. Some of the documents claimed to be essentially garnishments that would take property from my bank accounts,” he said.

The movement nationally doesn’t stop at what prosecutors call “paper terrorism.” Sovereign nationals have grown so dangerous that the FBI has deemed them the top domestic terrorist threat facing the United States. Sovereigns are blamed for the deaths of more than a dozen police officers over the years.

The Bundy family, which engaged in a multi-day stand-off with federal officials in Oregon over cattle grazing on public lands, identified with sovereign philosophies, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Doucette gave legal advice to the Bundys, investigators said.

“It's turned into a significant problem. Sovereign citizens often feel like they operate outside of the law or above the law,” said Ryan Lenz, an investigative reporter at the Law Center. “And they often get very angry and indignant and principled when a law enforcement officer might challenge them on their fictitious standing.”

Lenz said it would be a mistake to dismiss the paper terrorism as harmless.

“It’s not simply a matter of men and women running around filing fake financial documents and fake legal documents causing headaches for people,” he said. “If someone files a lien on your home it radically affects your ability to conduct the business of your family.”

Shapiro read several victim statements ahead of Doucette’s sentencing. One of them, Gilpin County Treasurer Aynn Huffman, said she put in safeguards to protect her staff after receiving threats from Doucette.

“It’s that type of stress that this defendant took joy and glee causing to ensure that his ideology would dictate and be of influence … against these people,” Shapiro said. But now, there has been a leveling off in reports of sovereign movements with the Colorado criminal trials are underway.

Still, Shapiro doesn’t expect the movement to die with the ringleaders going to state prison — Doucette was sentenced to 38 years in state prison this week. Nalty and Byfield were sentenced to 22 and 36 years, respectively, earlier this year.

“We expect in due course that the next generation of leaders will rise up and try to become the next Bruce Doucette,” he said.