Sheriff Nick Finch let a pistol-packing local man out of the Liberty County, Florida, jail shortly after taking office, a decision that brought him admiration, donations, and speaking requests from anti-government activists across the country. It put him at odds with state authorities, who charged him with a crime, but also thrust him into the vanguard of a radical and growing movement among sheriffs in rural communities who assert they can ignore state and federal laws they decide are unconstitutional.
The Florida episode began in the middle of the county’s lush Apalichicola National Forest on March 8, 2013, when one of Finch’s deputies pulled over a driver and discovered a loaded .25-caliber semi-automatic pistol in his front pocket, according to the deputy’s sworn statement. Carrying a concealed firearm without a license is a third-degree felony under Florida law, so the deputy arrested the man, Lloyd Parrish, and brought him in to the county jail.
Finch, 53, later said he decided that “I know what law rules the day, and it’s the U.S. Constitution.” He ordered Parrish released and someone whited out Parrish’s booking record, an act that caused Republican Gov. Rick Scott to order Finch’s suspension after the deputy complained. But then former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack called, and the political machinery of a group that Mack heads — the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association — became engaged.
Sympathizers created a Facebook support page for the previously obscure former U.S.Army police supervisor, and online commentators expressed outrage at what they called an unconstitutional attempt by the state to interfere with Finch’s support for gun rights. Mack organized a fundraiser in nearby Panama City and brought Stewart Rhodes, head of the citizen militia group known as the Oath Keepers, the same group that made national headlines last August for patrolling the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, with long guns. Mack is also on the Oath Keepers’ board of directors.
It wasn’t the only occasion in which Mack, a former public relations director of a lobbying group called Gun Owners of America, has intervened on behalf of someone who prominently contested the enforcement of laws. He’s traveled repeatedly to Oregon this year, appearing at high schools and fairgrounds, and giving interviews in which he sharply criticized federal authorities during their armed standoff with militants who occupied a wildlife refuge there to protest federal land-use rules. He’s also promised to help elect new sheriffs in the region who share his views. Gun laws are a focus of his ire, but federal lands restrictions and tax laws also have been in his sights.
What’s unique about his group is not that it opposes gun controls but that its ambition is to encourage law enforcement officers to defy laws they decide themselves are illegal. On occasion, some of his group’s sheriffs have found themselves in curious agreement with members of the sovereign citizens’ movement, which was also founded on claimed rights of legal defiance and is said by the FBI to pose one of the most serious domestic terrorism threats.
Mack claims the dues-paying support of several hundred of the nation’s more than 3,000 sheriffs and the sympathies of hundreds more, but it’s hard to assess how many endorse his denunciation of the federal government as the corrupt and illegitimate enforcer of laws that trample on states’ rights.
Dozens of sheriffs around the country — including John Hanlin, the sheriff of Douglas County, Oregon, the site of last October’s mass shooting of eight students and a professor at Umpqua Community College — joined Mack in an aggressive letter-writing campaign to the White House after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which they vowed not to enforce any “unconstitutional” federal regulations that tightened gun restrictions.
Mack has referred to the federal government as “the greatest threat we face today,” and describes his association — which states its meetings are supported by the John Birch Society and Gun Owners of America, as well as by annual dues payments of $50 — as “the army to set our nation free.” He said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity that he has grown the army by training more than 400 sheriffs at seminars and conventions in how to interpret the U.S. Constitution and how to resist authorities and laws that violate it. A former Florida assistant state attorney, KrisAnne Hall, assists in a coordinated training effort and says she conducts 265 sessions annually.
During Finch’s boisterous trial in October 2013, he was joined in the small Liberty County courtroom by Mack, several other Florida sheriffs, and dozens of new supporters. The judge had to admonish the crowd repeatedly not to laugh as the state presented its case against Finch, and in the end, the jury acquitted him of misconduct and falsification of records. He later won back pay as well as attorney’s fees of more than $160,000 and remains the sheriff of Liberty County.
Electoral defeats no obstacle
Mack first made it to the national stage in 1996 as a sheriff from Arizona, when he and a sheriff from Montana challenged a provision of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act before the U.S. Supreme Court. Using attorneys subsidized by the National Rifle Association, they argued it was unconstitutional for the federal government to require local chief law enforcement officers to run background checks on prospective gun buyers — and won, in a 5-4 ruling that struck down that provision of the act.
Mack was defeated in the Democratic primary that year before the Supreme Court heard his case, and has since lost three more elections, as a Republican primary candidate for sheriff in Utah, a Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate in Arizona, and a Republican primary candidate for the House of Representatives. He nonetheless became a popular speaker, initially at John Birch Society and National Rifle Association banquets, and later at tea party events. In May 2011, he registered the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association with the state of Texas – but it is just now filing for tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service, and as a result, its financing is largely opaque.
The group quickly came onto the radar of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama nonprofit group that describes itself as a monitor of hate groups. The center said in 2013 that Mack had frequently embraced “baseless conspiracy theories,” appeared on ideologically extreme media programs, and sought to promote the “Patriot” agenda among law enforcement officers. Mack responded by accusing the group of slander, but a lawsuit he filed foundered over a jurisdictional issue, according to federal court records and Center spokeswoman Ashley Levett.
Mack says that more than 100 sheriffs have shown up at the annual conventions his group has organized, including many in 2014 where Finch received the group’s top honor: Constitutional Sheriff of the Year. With forty other sheriffs, Finch signed a resolution there declaring they would not tolerate any federal agent who attempted to register firearms, arrest someone, or seize property in their counties without their consent.
Jared Goldstein, professor of constitutional law at the Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island, said this vow conflicts with the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, which authorizes federal agents to enforce federal law even when it clashes with state or local laws. “What makes them dangerous,” Goldstein said in an interview, is that they want “the sheriffs to resist federal authority,” using phraseology that he contends leaves the door open for violence. In their stubborn resistance to federal authority, he added, they are like Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk jailed last year for flouting the U.S. Supreme Court ruling granting gay couples the right to wed — “but with guns.”
Mack rejects this and says he envisions the sheriffs’ “take back” of the United States as a peaceful event. But he uses apocalyptic language to depict social conditions in America, describing sheriffs as a bulwark to forestall the violence for which armed, angry citizens around the country are preparing. In an interview with the Center for Public Integrity at his office, Finch, too, said he sees sheriffs as a safeguard against all-out civil war. “If all the sheriffs would get on board and stand in the gap, then maybe we can avoid the violence that I believe probably is going to come at some point,” Finch said.
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, an African-American Democrat who supports the association and was chosen as its Sheriff of the Year in 2013, captured the attention of gun rights advocates around the nation that year with his prophecy that federal efforts to restrict gun ownership in the country would result in an all-out civil uprising. In a 30-second public service announcement recorded that January, he urged citizens to learn to use firearms because “simply calling 911 and waiting is no longer your best option.” In an election the following year, the pro-gun control political action committee started by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $236,450 on television advertisements for his opponent while the National Rifle Association spent $30,876 on advertisements and organized a fundraising campaign that brought in another $170,617.77 from donors all over the country.
Clarke won with 52 percent of the vote, but his relationship with local authorities soured. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm in 2014 publicly accused him of pursuing media appearances and publicity tours at the expense of public safety in the county. “The public has a right to see their elected officials are committed to solving problems not engaging in demagoguery,” he wrote. “Get off your high horse, Sheriff, and get your office back in the fight.”
Winning over law enforcement officials
On the chilly morning last October, roughly 60 people — mostly older white men — sat at long plastic tables beneath the fluorescent lights of the auditorium in the Forrest County Multipurpose Center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to attend a “Tribute to Constitutional Sheriffs and Peacekeepers.” The funder was America’s Foundation, a nonprofit founded in Mississippi to teach people about the “proper balance of power that is supposed to exist between the states and the federal government,” according to the foundation’s president, Vince Thornton.
Thornton is listed in federal tax court records as a petitioner who sought tax-exempt status in 2000 for a different group, called The Nationalist Foundation, which said its aim was to support “promajority” citizens and to “save” neighborhoods by suing minorities and by countering “the leftist threat to our liberties.” He also is listed in state incorporation papers filed in March as an officer of the Dixie Alliance, which describes itself as supporting a correct understanding of the principles on which the Confederate States of America was founded.
Richard Barrett, a well-known white supremacist lawyer, was listed in state records as the Nationalist Foundation’s registered agent in 1996 and the America’s Foundation’s registered agent in 2005. “Richard Barrett is a self-proclaimed ‘racist’ and Chairman of the America’s Foundation, Jackson, Mississippi, a rightist youth organization,” a declassified 1987 FBI report states. (Barrett was killed by a neighbor in 2010.)
Asked for comment, Thornton said in an email that “Barrett was my friend and we never had a cross word between us.” With regard to the Nationalist Foundation, which failed to win a tax exemption, he said “I agreed to let him use my name as a favor for legal work he had done for me.” With regard to the America’s Foundation, he said Barrett “was only one member on a Board of Directors” and didn’t bring his political views “into the operation.” Thornton said “I reject both Nationalism and Socialism” and support “limited local government and the free enterprise system,” while opposing official corruption.
At the meeting, four or five political groups — the local chapters of a tea party group, Freedom Works, United Conservatives Fund — laid out their literature, candy, and swag on folding tables at the back of the room. The speakers included two local police officers, the president of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Rangers citizen militia, a veteran who tracks gun laws in Mississippi, an investigator for the state’s attorney general, and finally, the star attraction: Sheriff Richard Mack. But only one Mississippi county sheriff showed up: Billy McGee, from the surrounding Forrest County.
Mack is over six feet tall and bears a passing resemblance to Ronald Reagan, but with more piercing eyes and more forbidding eyebrows. Standing before the crowd in a casual, desert-hued suit, he seemed slightly larger than life. Audience members queued to have him sign their copies of a booklet summarizing his case against the Brady Act, called “The Victory for State Sovereignty.” In America, he said as audience members nodded, “gun control is against the law. And we don’t get to violate the law just because we have a shooting in Oregon or Sandy Hook or anyplace else.”
“What we want now is for many of you to come to our certification training,” he said. “You come to a two-day seminar, get certified, and then you get back here to your state and you start providing this training, bam, bam, bam, go to every sheriff’s office, go to chiefs of police, go to county commissioners and show them this training.” Details about how to get the certification training, Mack assured the audience, would be forthcoming.
Paul Boudreaux, 53, raised his hand from the third row. “What do you do about the sheriffs that are complicit with the federal government?” he asked.
“Ignore them,” Mack replied. He reminded the audience that there are nearly 3,100 sheriffs in the country and that the association is aiming to get approximately one-fourth of them to support its mission: “If we get that 600 or 700, there’s going to be no stopping. And then everybody in this country has at least two or three places in each state where they can go for refuge, find a true constitutional sheriff who’ll tell the federal government, ‘You’re not going to abuse citizens anymore.’”
Asked later what the worst abuses were that the federal government had committed in his community, Boudreaux brought up the gopher frog: an endangered species native to the Gulf region. To protect it, Boudreaux said, some of his neighbors have had hundreds of acres of land condemned as habitat where the frog can live. “Fortunately, because of our Second Amendment, we’ve still got the freest country on Earth,” Boudreaux added, crossing his arms. “But the sheriff needs to know,” Boudreaux said, expressing a view that most legal scholars vigorously dispute, “that he can forbid federal agents from coming into his county and trying to enforce laws that are unconstitutional.”
Roots of the movement
The constitutional sheriff movement, according to the teachings of Mack and his supporters, is rooted in the historical definition of sheriffs as the most powerful law-enforcement officers within their counties. The idea harkens to medieval England, when Anglo-Saxon kings tasked sheriffs with enforcing their edicts. English colonists brought the tradition to the Americas, and began electing their own sheriffs in the mid-1600s, entrusting them with overseeing the judicial process, carrying out legal decisions, and keeping the peace. Under the latter authority, they could organize citizen brigades to catch outlaws or defend against attackers, an arrangement known as “posse comitatus.”
In the 1970s, a minister in the white supremacist Christian Identity movement, William Potter Gale, wrote a series of articles that would come to be known as the handbook of the Posse Comitatus movement. Gale described sheriffs as the only “legal” law enforcement officers in the country and urged citizens to form their own militias to resist encroachments on their rights if sheriffs did not. The constitutional abuses he cited included the federal income tax system, gun control, federal education, and civil rights laws. He advised citizens to form their own “common law” courts to try officials who violated the constitution, and prescribed archaic punishments, such as hangings.
Contemporary “sovereign citizens,” who generally reject federal authorities, are inspired partly by Gale’s rhetoric and partly by past bloody clashes between federal officials and citizens charged with illegal gun sales and ownership. Terry Nichols, who is now in prison for planning the Oklahoma City federal center bombing that killed 168 people and wounded more than 680 others this week 21 years ago, is a notorious member of the sovereign citizen movement, according to the FBI.
That April 19 bombing deliberately coincided with the date of three iconic events in the radical right’s historical pantheon — the “shot heard round the world” at the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775; a violent FBI battle in 1985 with members of an extremist Christian group in Arkansas known as the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord; and the FBI’s climactic confrontation in 1993 with religious extremists belonging to the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, provoking a fire in which 76 people perished.
Nowadays, sovereign citizens number in the hundreds of thousands, and U.S. law enforcement agencies consider them the top terrorist threat in the country, according to a July 2014 survey by a University of Maryland-led terrorism study consortium. At least 14 police officers have been killed and another 14 injured in 62 incidents involving sovereign citizens since 9/11, according to J.J. MacNab, a frequent writer on anti-government extremism who consults for federal agencies. Most of their attacks are “unplanned, reactive violence targeting law enforcement officers during active enforcement efforts,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a Feb. 5, 2015, report.
In one such incident, West Memphis police officer Brandon Paudert and another officer pulled over a sovereign citizen named Jerry Kane and his 16-year-old son in a white minivan with out-of-state license plates, in May 2010. The duo had been traveling around the country peddling debt-avoidance seminars based on sovereign citizen beliefs. Kane had been threatening anti-government violence for years on his Internet radio show, and the traffic stop escalated rapidly into a tussle in which the younger Kane shot Paudert and the other policeman dead with an AK-47. Police officers caught up with both Kanes hours later in a Walmart parking lot, where they were killed.
Mack and his supporters dismiss the idea that they are supportive of the violent measures taken by sovereign citizens. But some of his association’s members have found common cause with the group. In February 2011, for example, New Hampshire Sheriff Christopher Conley — who was listed as a member of the council of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association from November 2012 until 2015 — expressed support for claims made against the Internal Revenue Service by a sovereign citizen named Charles Gregory Melick. A deputy federal marshal had served a summons on Melick at Conley’s office, requiring him to appear in court about unpaid taxes, but Conley decided to write to a judge on Melick’s behalf, arguing that the service was not legally valid. “I have a duty to protect people’s Constitutional rights and protections,” Conley said in his note.
Conley was never directly punished for his decision to not detain Melick, but lost the election in 2012.
In 2014, at least three sheriffs showed up with constitutionalist citizen militia groups and members of the Oath Keepers to support Cliven Bundy’s standoff against the federal Bureau of Land Management at his ranch in southern Nevada — a precursor to this year’s standoff by radical land-rights activists, whose leaders included two of Bundy’s sons, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., a few months after the Bundy Ranch standoff, Oath Keepers President Stewart Rhodes gave those sheriffs a special shoutout. “You had Brad Rogers [from Indiana] there, he came on our behalf, you had Sheriff Peyman from Kentucky, you also had Jeff Christopher from Delaware,” he told the audience.
“So if we’re a bunch of radical anti-government crazy cop killers, why were there police officers standing right there with us?” Rhodes asked. “It’s cause we’re all in this together.”
Bob Paudert, the chief of the West Memphis police at the time of the deadly traffic stop and the father of one of the policemen slain that day, said he is troubled by the number of sheriffs and police officers who adopt the ideology of armed resistance embraced by sovereign citizens, but he can understand why they do. “Even I agree with a lot of what they say,” he told the Center for Public Integrity, such as the principles of standing up for states’ rights and reining in the federal government. “But law enforcement is not the enemy.”
Closed seminars for sheriffs and police
One of the foot soldiers in the effort to train law enforcement officers as well as regular citizens to be more “constitutionally minded,” as Mack puts it, is KrisAnne Hall. Like Mack, she travels the country teaching her interpretation of constitutional law to everyone from sheriffs to middle schoolers. She says the government cannot regulate healthcare or gun ownership or voting requirements, or exercise any powers not delegated to it by the states.
Hall told the Center in a recent interview that her passion for such topics lit up at the University of Florida law school, and that after a brief stint in the state attorney’s office, she found a job with the Gibbs Law Firm, which has offices in Florida, Texas, and Washington, D.C. Its owner, David Gibbs III, is also the president of the National Center for Life and Liberty, a ministry organization that aims to “protect and defend the Bible-based values upon which our nation was founded,” according to its website.
Hall became vocal about her views, and after returning to the state attorney’s office, gave speeches at tea party meetings and spoke on radio programs – a practice that irritated her superiors, she and her former boss said in interviews. She was told to quit speaking ill of the state’s authority or to resign, and filed a protest before reaching a settlement and leaving the office. She then took up the seminar work and developed a curriculum specifically aimed at sheriffs and law enforcement officers. In an interview, Hall said they usually find it particularly challenging to understand their true duties under the First, Second, Fourth, and Tenth Amendments. In her book, Sovereign Duty, Hall exhorts readers to bring a copy of the association’s 2014 resolution telling federal agents to keep out, in effect, to their sheriffs and ask them to sign it. “Do not except [sic] excuses like, ‘I have to enforce the law,’” she writes.
The National Sheriffs’ Association, the country’s main professional association for sheriffs, does not try to regulate its member’s claims, including messages from Mack and his supporters, according to its deputy executive director, John Thompson. “There may be people that are part of this that are our members. Matter of fact, I know there are,” said Thompson in an interview at the association’s headquarters in Virginia.
The association, a 65-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to “raising the level of professionalism” among sheriffs, according to its website, offers general ethics and leadership training for sheriffs. But Thompson said the association’s leaders never opine on how individual sheriffs should behave because their authorities vary so widely from state to state, and because they are ultimately accountable to voters.
How Mack’s campaign plays out over the next few years is unclear. The general political climate, as reflected in the presidential campaign, is angrier and more confrontational than ever. And anti-government extremists are more agitated than at any time in recent memory, as evidenced by the recent siege at the Oregon wildlife refuge. But the reputation of the sheriffs in Mack’s group could be enhanced or sullied by the outcome of a wide-ranging Oregon state probe of Sheriff Glenn Palmer, a vocal supporter of the group who met with several participants in the siege, allegedly asked them to sign his copy of the Constitution, and was quoted by a newspaper calling them “patriots.” The sole casualty, Robert “Lavoy” Finicum, told state police he was on his way to meet with Palmer a few minutes before he was shot, allegedly for making a threatening motion.
“We can’t make anybody be courageous, but we want sheriffs to see the abuses of the federal government,” Mack said in the interview. “If you put them in front of the right information, they’ll do the right thing.”
Executive editor Gordon Witkin contributed to this article. It was co-published with NBC News.
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