Jan. 6 rioters' 'sovereign citizen' defense backfires

On Wednesday, CBS News' Scott MacFarlane, the lead reporter covering the January 6 rioter trials, reported that a pair of defendants tried to invoke the "sovereign citizen" movement in court — only for it to blow up in their faces.

The defendants, Shawndale and Donald Chilcoat of Celina, Ohio, face six felony charges. Prosecutors say they could be seen in social media posts smashing out windows in the Capitol after illegally entering with the mob — and according to the report, they went around their own attorney to push their own legal theories in court.

"Although represented by counsel, Defendants have moved pro se to dismiss this case, raising a lot of arguments broadly connected to the 'sovereign citizen' movement," said the order from the D.C. District Court. "After giving the Defendants' arguments full consideration, and upon consideration of the briefing, the relevant legal authorities, and the entire record, the Court DENIES Defendants' ... Motion to Dismiss."

The sovereign citizen movement is a fringe legal ideology that broadly claims the United States government is illegal, or was secretly replaced with a private corporation in the 19th century, and that therefore adherents can exempt themselves from most taxes and laws. Some concoct arguments involving wordplay, grammar, or capitalization to argue that "admiralty law" subsumes all federal laws, or that indictments against them reference a "fictitious" person and do not apply to them.

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One of the most famous Capitol rioters to push sovereign citizen claims is Pauline Bauer, who unsuccessfully claimed that the court has no "dominion over a living soul" and the charges against her "vessel" must be dropped.

While Bauer reportedly has now distanced herself, several other rioters are continuing to push sovereign citizen arguments. There is overlap between sovereign citizen adherents and believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory, the Nazi-aligned cult ideology that holds America is controlled by child-trafficking Satanists. One of the figures encouraging sovereign citizen arguments in these cases is Bobby Lawrence, a Pennsylvania man who calls his legal theories "American state nationalism" and has argued that the use of the word "ship" in "citizenship" implies admiralty law overrides anything federal prosecutors do.