1. In the spring of 2011, Cherron Marie Phillips, a real estate agent in Chicago, decided to take revenge on twelve government officials who had been involved in prosecuting her brother Devon for drug trafficking. Phillips went to the office of her local recorder of deeds, where she filed a series of liens against the judges, prosecutors, law enforcement agents, and court staff who had taken part in his case. (Liens establish a legal claim to property in order to guarantee the payment of a debt.) One of the targeted officials was Patrick Fitzgerald, the former US attorney who oversaw Devon’s prosecution; at the time, he was already well known for leading the investigation of the Valerie Plame affair and prosecuting former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Phillips claimed that Fitzgerald owed her brother $100 billion, a sum that no public servant, even one assured of a plum post-government salary, could hope to pay. Since debtors generally aren’t notified when a lien is placed on their property, Phillips’s liens were not discovered until months later, when a court clerk named Michael Dobbins tried to sell a parking space he owned and found it was encumbered with a $100 billion debt.
2. Such tactics have become known as paper terrorism, defined by Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League, as “the use of bogus legal documents and filings, or the misuse of legitimate ones, to intimidate, harass, threaten, or retaliate against public officials, law enforcement officers, or private citizens.” Liens are simple and inexpensive for paper terrorists to file but difficult for victims to scrub away. Even when the claims are obviously fake—alleging debts of outlandish magnitude—the supposed debtors can be forced to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees to clear the titles to their homes or to restore their credit ratings. According to John Gale, the secretary of state of Nebraska, who led a campaign against paper terrorism, “Many people have just had to live with these liens because they don’t have the resources to take them off.” And fraudulent liens are just one weapon in the arsenal: paper terrorists can also attack with pro se lawsuits; frivolous requests for documents; involuntary bankruptcy petitions; and false judgments, tax forms, and property deeds. In doing so, they erode the integrity of public records and the functioning of government, in addition to harming their victims.
3. The sovereign citizen movement has continued to grow, and since the Nineties, it has come to include a significant proportion of non-white members. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 300,000 Americans now identify as “sovereigns.” Some have taken extreme measures to flout authority. In 2010, a “sovereign” father and son fatally shot two police officers during a traffic stop in West Memphis, Arkansas. (This and other acts of violence have made the movement one of the FBI’s top domestic terrorism concerns.) But more often, they prefer the subtler weapon of paper. One of their newest tactics is filing fake property deeds. In 2012, a family in Temecula, California, returned from vacation to find their home occupied by its previous owner, who had lost it in foreclosure. The squatter had submitted a phony deed to the county recorder’s office and transferred a utility account to his name. Others aligned with the movement have even infiltrated the governments they seek to discredit. Richard Marple, a New Hampshire state representative who has refused to pay his taxes, recently sponsored a bill that would fine local governments $10,000 every time they refused to accept fraudulent documents.
4. Many states have begun to pass legislation to combat paper terrorism. Recorders’ offices have started requiring the filer of a lien to supply proof of the debt and giving the debtor an opportunity to dispute it. The judicial process for removing or expunging false liens has been expedited, and criminal and civil penalties have been introduced or increased. In May, Bruce Doucette, who led a group of paper terrorists in Colorado, was sentenced to thirty-eight years in prison for crimes against public officials, including filing retaliatory liens. Phillips was also eventually caught and tried. In November 2012, a grand jury indicted her on twelve charges. During her trial, two victims testified that the property associated with the liens did not actually belong to them, which meant, according to prosecutors, that “the true owners of those properties have also been victimized.” Two years later, Phillips was sentenced to seven years in prison.
5. The threat posed by paper terrorism is far from over, though there is little data about it, and it doesn’t often make the news. Around a dozen states still have no laws designed to prevent fraudulent filings. Recently, current and former inmates, who were introduced to paper terrorism by incarcerated sovereign citizens, have been employing its tactics in nothing-to-lose gambits and harassment campaigns. Since the sovereign citizen movement tends to attract followers during economic downturns, the next one, which seems cyclically due, may bring with it a surge in phony filings. Similarly, Pitcavage warns that if the Democrats return to power—or if Trump is impeached—there will be a wave of anti-government anger on the right, and sovereign citizens will get swept up in it. “Anytime there is a surge in sovereign citizen activity,” he says, “you will see an increase in paper terrorism.”