In Chicago, Illinois, the Chicago Tribune
- On the eve of her trial on charges she slapped huge liens on then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and other high-ranking federal court officials, Cherron Phillips showed just how unpredictable the proceedings could become when testimony begins.
In an unusual hearing Friday, Phillips filed several unintelligible motions, questioned a federal judge on his loyalty to the Constitution and insisted that U.S. citizens would not comprise a jury of her peers.
"I hesitate to rank your statements in order of just how bizarre they are," said veteran U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur, who at one point attempted to explain to Phillips the meaning of the phrase, "garbage in, garbage out." As Phillips continued to press him on his allegiance to the Constitution, Shadur finally cut her off.
"Oh, come on!" he said. "I've had enough of this. We are in recess until Monday at 9:30."
The Chicago woman is representing herself after rejecting advice from Shadur to have an attorney appointed by the court to help her.
Phillips faces charges that she targeted Fitzgerald, then-Chief Judge James Holderman and other federal judges, prosecutors and court officials by filing bogus liens on their homes in 2011 that sought tens of billions of dollars.
Prosecutors allege Phillips was retaliating after she was physically barred from the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse and forbidden from filing documents on behalf of her brother, Devon, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to drug conspiracy charges.
- Phillips, 43, who also goes by the name of River Tali El Bey, has professed in court that she doesn't recognize the federal system. Her court filings reflect the ideology of sovereign citizens, a rapidly expanding anti-government movement whose adherents often file nonsensical, complex legal documents and refuse to accept or follow court rules.
Their actions can stall legal proceedings for years and frustrate even the most even-tempered judges. States are responding by passing laws to ban such frivolous filings, and prosecutors are bringing criminal charges despite the painful effort of bringing them to trial.
- Phillips' troubles at Chicago's federal courthouse stem from her allegedly disruptive behavior at proceedings for her brother's drug conspiracy case. She repeatedly tried to address the court and approach the podium to speak, according to court documents. She also filed documents with sovereign citizen overtones on his behalf, the records show.
Phillips "has continually shown a pattern of behavior to delay and disrupt the administration of justice," reads the February 2011 executive order that finally barred her from the courthouse and from filing documents.
A month after the executive order, Phillips allegedly went to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds office and started filing false maritime liens against those connected to her brother's case — some in the outrageous amount of $100 billion. A dozen liens in all were filed.
Mark Potuk, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has monitored hate groups for decades, said the filing of such documents is known as "paper terrorism" and it is clogging court systems around the country.
"One of the classic sovereign techniques for attacking their enemies is these court filings," Potuk said.
Potuk said the sovereign citizen movement is a shadowy underground without a central structure whose followers generally espouse a belief that most federal tax and criminal laws simply don't apply to them.
There was a noticeable wave of sovereign citizen activity in the 1990s and then again half a dozen years ago, Potuk said.
The tactics have spread across the Internet and through jailhouses, holding out some tantalizing promises of not paying taxes or avoiding foreclosure, all rooted in the premise that federal laws hold no sway, Potuk said. They also believe there is a secret treasury account for every citizen containing millions of dollars that can be accessed — if you learn how to file the right paperwork.
"This is a strange netherworld of people who go from hotel seminar to hotel seminar selling absolutely baseless theories," Potuk said.