Darrell Brooks, convicted in the Waukesha Christmas parade attack, claimed he was a ‘sovereign citizen.’ Does the concept have any legal basis?

Darrell Brooks leans over, holding his head into his clasped hands
Darrell Brooks reacts as the guilty verdict is read during his trial in a Waukesha County Circuit Court in Waukesha, Wis., on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. Brooks, who is represented himself during the trial, was charged with driving into a Waukesha Christmas Parade last year, killing six people and injuring dozens more. Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP, Pool

A man convicted on Wednesday of driving into a crowd of people during a Wisconsin Christmas parade last year had, for some weeks, represented himself during his murder trial and invented a “sovereign citizen” legal defense strategy. 

Darrell Brooks, 40, was found guilty on all 76 criminal charges related to the deaths of six people he struck with his truck when plowing through the crowd during the parade. Dozens of others were injured.

During the circus-like trial, Brooks frequently clashed with the judge and offered bizarre legal theories that had no basis in law or reality. Chief among them was the concept of sovereign citizenship, a notion linked to far-right extremism

According to the FBI, sovereign citizens are “anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or ‘sovereign’ from the United States.” Thus, they believe they aren’t beholden to government authority, including “courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments or law enforcement.”

The judge in the case ruled weeks earlier that Brooks couldn’t use his sovereign citizen defense because it lacked merit. But does the concept have any legal applicability whatsoever? Northeastern legal experts argue that it does not. 

Michael Meltsner, the George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law, says the defense is “nonsense.”

headshot of Daniel Medwed (left) and Michael Meltsner (right)
Daniel Medwed, university distinguished professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern and Michael Meltsner, the George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews Distinguished Professor of Law at Northeastern. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern Universty.

“The anti-government claims involved are so baseless that even most right-wingers don’t assert them,” he says. 

“The so-called ‘sovereign citizens’ claim is a specious argument grounded in far-right ideology that holds that someone is not a citizen of the United States, does not recognize the laws and regulations of federal, state or local government, and therefore should not be bound by them,” says Daniel Medwed, Northeastern’s university distinguished professor of law and criminal justice.

Still, Medwed says this type of defense is used “all the time.” 

“I am not aware of it ever succeeding, I think, for rather obvious reasons—you can’t just conveniently insist that you are not beholden to our laws when in fact you benefit from them every day,” he says.

The whole concept of sovereign citizenship may be legally meaningless, but self-representation in court, as a matter of law, is not. In fact, defendants taking up their own legal defense happens on occasion—although more often than not, such cases result in very few favorable verdicts and decisions on behalf of defendants, Medwed says. Some of the reasons a person may be inclined to represent themselves include not being able to afford counsel, plans to plead guilty and—for defendants already incarcerated—gaining access to library resources. 

“[The] most famous example of a positive outcome is Gideon v. Wainwright [in 1963], where the defendant went without a lawyer and lost at trial, then claimed he was deprived of his constitutional rights by not getting an assigned attorney,” Medwed says. 

The U.S. Supreme Court took up the case, ruling that states must provide counsel to criminal defendants that cannot afford it. “A fancy lawyer argued out and, voila, we now have a right to counsel,” Medwed says. 

About a decade later, the Supreme Court went a step further and addressed the issue of self-representation in Faretta v. California, holding that defendants have a constitutional right to waive counsel and represent themselves (pro se) in criminal cases. 

But as to the practical benefits of self-representation, Meltsner says that “to represent yourself in a criminal court, isn’t just risky, it’s foolhardy.”

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