Democracy may not be on trial, but Tom Murphy and Jeff Lind are. The two have ties to the anti-government “sovereign citizen” movement and are accused of conspiring to file a false lien against the Solvang home of a Santa Barbara County judge in a lengthy and bizarre series of legal challenges and political protests that dates back to 2010. They each face felony counts and maximum sentences of three years and eight months in prison, and their trial is scheduled to start this week.
The saga began when Lind, a marketing executive who lives in Orcutt and works in nearby San Luis Obispo, allegedly threatened a police officer who had arrested his son for driving under the influence. Lind was charged with witness intimidation and ordered to appear before Judge Kay Kuns. Claiming to not recognize the court’s authority over him, Lind — with help from Murphy, a dogged sovereign citizen crusader living in Los Osos at the time — loosed an avalanche of filings and paperwork claiming $77 million in damages against Kuns for violating his rights.
Authorities in similar cases around the country have termed the tactic “paper terrorism” meant to harass and frustrate court systems and county counsel offices and used to retaliate against what sovereign citizens perceive as governmental overreach. No matter how ridiculous the documents may read, they still must be vetted for legal significance or potential liability. Just two weeks ago, a 44-year-old Chicago woman who had joined the movement was sentenced to 10 years in prison for filing a series of bogus liens against a number of the city’s judges and prosecutors. In September, a Georgia sovereign citizen was convicted for the same crimes. On the issue of liens, which can be filed by anyone under the Uniform Commercial Code regardless of validity, the target often takes a hit on his or her credit rating and must endure a painstaking process to have the lien removed.
In this case, Santa Barbara prosecutor Brian Cota contends that Murphy and Lind tried to file the lien against Kuns’s home in an “extortion-like attempt” to get Lind’s witness intimidation charge case dismissed, not because they thought they had a legitimate claim over the property. Cota dismissed Murphy and Lind’s defense that they truly believe the court has no jurisdiction over them, pointing to a 2008 case in which Lind pleaded to a “wet and reckless” charge — a reckless driving charge with minor drug or alcohol involvement — and accepted a probation sentence. Their intent all along, he argued, was simply to distract and deflect with “spurious gibberish.”
Cota also noted that the names of dozens of people with bare involvement in the case — from Sheriff Bill Brown to county administrative staffers — appear in filings and online postings created by the pair. Some of the documents are labeled with assault weapon models, and many contain veiled threats, Cota said. On Monday, Murphy and/or Lind distributed fake arrest warrants for Cota, DA Joyce Dudley, Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, and others. The warrants were issued by Murphy’s fabricated organization, the National Standards Enforcement Agency out of Missouri that purports to convene its own Grand Jury.
During pretrial motions this week, Judge Jean Dandona ruled that because of the pair’s “extraordinary history” of perceived harassment, jurors would be referred to not by name but by number. Such unusual restrictions are normally reserved for gang trials. Defense attorneys Jeff Chambliss, representing Lind, and Robert Landheer, representing Murphy, objected to the decision, saying their clients pose no threat to jurors or anyone else. While neither defendant has a history of physical aggression, the sovereign citizen movement’s reputation for occassional violence has prompted a security increase in the courtroom and at the DA’s Office.
In his comments to Dandona, Landheer often suggested that the trial could — and indeed, should — include discussion around his client’s political ideology as it would be central to the legal argument over intent. He said his client has been unfairly labeled by the DA’s Office as a “domestic terrorist” and that he believes Murphy’s prosecution is a “witch hunt.” “It is a political case,” he declared, “and I will say it as many times as I can.” Dandona disagreed, ruling Landheer must stick to addressing the specific charges and that he can’t bring politics into the proceedings. “The issues are narrow,” she said. “I don’t believe democracy is on trial.”