How free can you be?
Mainers to government: 'Butt out!'
Living in the rural woods doesn't make sovereign citizens'take kindly
to officials sticking their noses where they don't belong
By GEOFF DAVIDIAN
Putnam Pit editor
C. The Maine Sunday Telegram
CHERRYFIELD, Maine -- This rural community has been off the beaten path since the shipbuilding and logging industries pulled out in the early 1900s, and residents have learned to fend for themselves.
Jim Layton, the town manager, says that despite living in one of the lowest income areas in the country, the majority of the 1,010 people here have grown content, even complacent through the fruits of their own labors, by digging worms, or clams, trapping lobster or selling firewood.
They have a disdain for interference, evident in the local laws: in the 122 years since it was founded, the town has passed only five ordinances.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time, given the history and inclination of the people here, that rural Washington County would become an enclave of "sovereign citizens" -- people who reject the authority of the state or law in their everyday lives.
County courthouses throughout central Maine increasingly have been pestered by these burrs under the judicial blanket and district attorneys have become familiar with their "sovereign citizen defense."
David Dodge, a Cherryfield resident, does not mind talking about what he believes.
"In Washington County, a lot of people live off the land," Dodge said.
"You don't call a plumber. If you want something done, you do it yourself or call on your friends. For years we did not have licenses or registration, and no one cared. We don't want someone from 200 miles away telling us what to do."
Armed with motions that are seldom understood and virtually never granted, constitutional gadflies like Dodge ask for full-blown jury trials for speeding, illegal fishing or other minor violations, and then, after lengthy presentations by the prosecutor, offer as their defense the argument that the constitution has been subverted and therefore the state has no authority over them.
"They serve you with a whole bunch of paperwork, which is ignored," said Franklin County District Attorney Janet Mills.
"They want to dwell on the gold standard or on the legitimacy of the U.S. Constitution. We've obtained convictions in every case there's been, from carrying a concealed weapon in a vehicle to operating a vehicle after suspension to drunk driving.
"I don't know if it's a network or if an idea has taken hold, but in each case they quote from the same literature."
In some eases, they argue that Maine still is a part of Massachusetts so state courts have no jurisdiction. In others, the claim is that only the Coast Guard can try them, or the sole authority over them is the admiralty court.
In one case, the defendant claimed that the court had no jurisdiction in "the kingdom."
These are not anarchists, prosecutors concede, but individuals whose interpretation of the Constitution leads them to assert they can drive as fast as they want, and in general live their lives without the government butting in.
Some of their legal cases are pursued because the disputes are like a hobby, critics claim. But even their critics do not deny their right to present their argument -- futile as they often are -- in court.
"I'll never say they shouldn't have a trial," said Michael Povich, district attorney in Hancock and Washington counties. "But what's a jury to do if a guys says, I'm a sovereign citizen so I don't need a license?' "
"They want to play baseball in Fenway Park, but they want to make their own rules. They want to run from home to third, or have 15 players on the field. When they lose, they don't understand."
Povich sees a danger in the practice. "The mischief is when they say they don't want a lawyer but have (an unlicensed counsel) working in the background," Povich said.
For the most part, these sovereign citizens are personable and are not a problem, say officials. Washington County Sheriff Harold Prescott said he knew sovereign citizens, "and they never created a disturbance that affected me or my agency."
But Prescott said that when one of them gets arrested, friends will pester him at home all night until he tires of answering the phone and refuses any more calls.
Thus, Prescott said, these individuals "appear to be organized." "It's quite possible they belong to some kind of group. I haven't seen any kind of violent activity, only nuisance. But they feel they are above the law."
Delbert Weller has a different perspective on this phenomenon. The 53-year-old computer salesman from Cherryfield wants the courts to stop kicking individuals around, and he believes there cannot be a crime unless someone else's rights have been violated. So when he got a ticket for not having a license recently, he fought with the sovereign citizen defense. He lost.
"That's my road. I don't need permission from my servant to use it," he said. "It's like asking the gardener if I can pick roses. I don't think (the authorities) can be so ignorant to not understand. You know who the law is? The people. The police are there to assist you."
Weller saw that if through negligent driving someone was killed, the family of the victim would have a reason and a right to sue. But the state should not be regulating our behavior, he insists.
Leroy Harrington, an old friend of Weller's, has lived in Cherryfield for all of his 63 years. He had a driver's license until a few years ago.
"They wanted to take my picture before they'd give me a license. I said, I don't want my picture taken. If I want my picture taken, I'll go to a photographer.' But then they decided to not give me a license, so I left."
When he subsequently was arrested for driving without a license and operating an unregistered vehicle, Harrington went to trial and told the court that since he had not hurt anyone, there had been no crime.
"You shouldn't interfere with my pursuit of happiness," he recalled telling the court.
The case is still pending, but he has since received a license.
David Dodge is perhaps the best known of those who share the anti-establishment philosophy. Assistant Attorney General William R. Stokes said he was asking the court to force Dodge and a co-defendant to provide a list showing how much money they made from the approximately 15 clients he claims they represented between 1985 and 1987 so the money can be returned.
Sheriff Prescott said that Dodge was "more of a nuisance than anything," but that he had followers and appeared to be the "legal representative" of some of the other sovereign citizens.
Dodge has his share of other problems, in addition to small-time charges like clamming without a license. He was recently released from prison after serving time for chopping down telephone poles between Perry and Eastport (Maine) because of their aesthetic sensitivity. He admits that he "had a hand" in the mischief, but he said many people were mad that the telephone company had ruined a pristine panorama, and that others had been involved. "They put the poles back up with steel poles in the center," Dodge laughed. He said he also had to laugh when the prosecution claimed that he could cut down 18 phone poles in little more than an hour with a saw, but no one else was charged.
"What is the description of someone who answers to his own conscience? I don't believe anyone wants to answer to any other authority. . . . "I've had over 40 warrants issued for my arrest in the past two years. Not one because I interfered with anyone else's life.
"You have to make the decision to do what needs to be done to achieve the goal. We would use the courts first, but if there's going to be energy expended you use the most efficient way possible."
[Reprinted with permission of The Maine Sunday Telegram . Originally published Aug. 7, 1988.]