Korryn Gaines
WBAL Screenshot

On Aug. 1, Korryn Gaines reportedly holed herself up in her Baltimore home refusing police entry. The reason the police were there in the first place is still sketchy. Initially it was reported that the 23-year-old mother was being served a warrant for a failure to appear in court, and now news has come out that police were serving an arrest warrant. The police claim she pointed a shotgun at an officer during the initial encounter, which escalated the incident. While the story of exactly what happened is still unfolding, what we do know is this: Gaines was shot and killed during the incident, and her 5-year-old son was wounded.

What's left behind is a social media puzzle of clues as to who Gaines may have been before her fatal encounter with police. Videos posted on social media show a woman who might have been a “sovereign citizen.” It's important in this heightened police climate that we stay informed. While the waters of sovereign citizenship are murky, with the doctrine dating back to the 18th century, below is a brief synopsis of the movement that law-enforcement agencies have identified as one of the largest domestic terrorist threats in the U.S.

What Is a Sovereign Citizen?

A sovereign citizen is a person who holds complex anti-government beliefs and doesn't believe in government-ordered practices like paying taxes or registering a car with the state. Sovereigns also believe that by denouncing their citizenship, ripping up their Social Security card, and refusing to pay taxes or register their vehicle with the appropriate state, they are no longer ruled by federal law.

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J.J. MacNab, who has studied the phenomenon for over a decade, told CBS that a sovereign citizen "has a twisted sense of history and he thinks that people who lived in the 18th century were free of all legal constraints. And they want to return to that time now."

The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that the majority of sovereign citizens are African American but that the origins are rooted in racist, anti-Semitic beliefs.

Sovereigns often destroy all forms of documentation, including driver's licenses, license plates, vehicle registration and Social Security numbers, and believe that in doing so, they are absolved from being under federal rule.

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Most have a skewed view of what the government can and cannot do and challenge those who impose what they consider to be unjust laws. They've been known to use archaic, and oftentimes misinterpretations of, laws to justify their position.

Was Korryn Gaines a Sovereign Citizen?

Possibly. During a March traffic stop, which was recorded on video, an officer can be heard telling Gaines that she had cardboard signs for license plates. One cardboard sign reportedly had the words "Free Traveler" written on it. Sovereign citizens often refer to themselves as free travelers. The other had the following phrase written on it: "Any government official who compromises this pursuit to happiness and right to travel, will be held criminally responsible and fined, as this is a natural right to freedom."

Sovereign citizens believe that the government not only is wrong in detaining them but also has acted with impunity because U.S. citizens are ignorant of their rights.

Gaines can be heard stating that she doesn't "follow their laws" and repeatedly asks the officer for a delegation-of-authority order. If Gaines was, in fact, a sovereign citizen, then she would have believed that state and federal laws did not apply to her.

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In a caption posted with her March arrest video, Gaines posted this:

Constitutional Law is the only true law. In order to be granted the role as Law enforcement u must take an oath to uphold the Constitution and be granted a DOAO DELEGATION OF AUTHORITY ORDER. The police are not Law enforcement they are Policy enforcers and operate outside of the laws of the Constitution which would make them organized criminals. They enforce CORPORATE Law (to generate revenue, in others words to get money, however in this case they know that i know this nd this is them making trouble with me) which is not a true form of the law but so many of us have bended to their criminal ways. Not me.

Sovereign Citizens and Law Enforcement

Police sometimes stop sovereign citizens who believe that they are being harassed unjustly by uninformed officers. During a post after her March traffic stop, Gaines identified the police as "kidnappers" and noted that she was being "held hostage" while in police custody.

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Sovereigns believe that judges, courts and police officers no longer have jurisdiction over them. They often consider police "harassers" and clog up the court system filing frivolous lawsuits citing archaic and, oftentimes, asinine statutes. This is sometimes referred to as "paper terrorism."

Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is a senior editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.