This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.
Financial Crimes and Inclusion in tPP
When deciding whether to include cases in tPP dataset, it is important to recall the definitions of extremist violence and terrorism around which we base our project. Ever keeping in mind the mission of tPP, which is to examine how political violence is prosecuted in the United States, explore the relationship between the perpetrator and his/her crime, and to determine any predictive effects variables, such as target, ideology, and group affiliation have on how a defendant is charged and eventually prosecuted.
The FBI defines domestic terrorism as any crime that is “perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature” (See the Defining Terrorism page). While there has been no internationally agreed upon legal definition of terrorism by the United Nations General Assembly, there is some consensus amongst academics on what officially constitutes terrorism (See the Defining Terrorism page under section Revised Academic Consensus of Terrorism). Defined generally:
“terrorism refers, on the one hand, to a doctrine about the presumed effectiveness of a special form or tactic of fear-generating, coercive political violence and, on the other hand, to a conspiratorial practice of calculated, demonstrative, direct violent action without legal or moral restraints, targeting mainly civilians and non-combatants, performed for its propagandistic and psychological effects on various audiences and conflict parties” .
While examining tPP dataset, we tend to see crimes that are prosecuted mostly on the grounds of political violence that were carried out, attempted, or not carried out at all but had politically violent intentions. Although there are many occurrences in which an individual who appears in tPP committed only a minor crime, such as passport fraud, and was prosecuted on terrorism-related charges (See my blog post on the state speech act), the deciding factor for inclusion in tPP emphasizes the role of political violence in prosecution of a crime. This begs an important question: what is paper terrorism and why is it described as such by law enforcement?
Paper terrorism can be understood as behavior designed to create bureaucratic inefficiencies by “clogging the courts with nonsensical, voluminous filings, phony lawsuits, and false liens against public officials as a form of harassment and intimidation” . These crimes are usually carried out by sovereign citizens, defined by the FBI as “anti-government extremists who claim the federal government is operating outside its jurisdiction and they are therefore not bound by government authority” . Sovereign citizens take advantage of legal loopholes, mostly, by filing false liens which are incredibly time-consuming and costly to be removed. While in the broader spectrum of the extremist milieu paper terrorism seems frivolous, false liens can be incredibly damaging to the person or corporation against whom it is filed. Liens can destroy a person’s credit score, thereby affecting their ability to buy a home, start a business, rent a car, or do just about anything that requires a half-decent credit score. Nonetheless, there is no legal definition of paper terrorism, and those who are apprehended for filing false liens are prosecuted on financial crimes, usually void of terrorism-related charges. By tPP standards, we do not include sovereign citizens who carry out financial crimes in lieu of their extremist ideology in our dataset. We do, however, include sovereign citizens who a prosecuted on different charges.
There is some overlay between financial terrorism and tPP. In particular, there is one individual, Lee Harold Cromwell, who, after ramming his car into a crowd at an Independence Day celebration, killing one and injuring 12 others, filed liens against his arresting officer and prosecuting attorney. Though Cromwell was not included in our dataset for filing the false liens, it is a defining characteristic of sovereign citizens and can serve to inform our decision on whether or not to include an individual in tPP. Cromwell and four others appear in tPP for the car ramming and subsequent filing of false liens against public officials. Sovereigns are coded under Ideological Affiliation as Rightist: Government-based due to their ideological convictions against the United States government and other governments they believe to be illegitimate. In tPP Codebook, we define Rightist: Government-based ideological affiliations as encompassing individuals who desire autonomy from the United States government, those who act to prevent government overreach, or those which act as pro-government vigilantes and paramilitary forces.
Specifically, sovereigns would fall under the “desire autonomy from the United States government” camp. The other four individuals included in tPP in relation to the violent crime carried out by Cromwell are included because they aided Cromwell in filing the liens against the government officials prosecuting his case. However, while they did not carry out a violent crime, their crimes are motivated to protect the individual who did carry out the crime. Conclusively, sovereign citizens are included in tPP and can even be included for carrying out financial crimes so long as it fits the framework we have laid out for inclusion in tPP. In other words, if the crime has no obvious socio-political aims, does not support organized violence, or does not fit the conditions for a state speech act, it will not be included in tPP.
Notes “Defining Terrorism – the Prosecution Project.”  March-Safbom, “Weapons of Mass Distraction.”  “Sovereign Citizens Sentenced.”