MEMPHIS, TN (abc24.com) - The trial against a former Shelby County court clerk turned an anti-government extremist gets underway Tuesday. Otis Jackson is facing corruption charges stemming from his time as clerk. He claims he's exempt from charges because he's a 'sovereign citizen'.
Sovereigns don't believe they have to follow federal, state, or local laws. Tennessee lawmakers are working to toughen penalties for sovereign citizens who break the law.
Cross paths with a sovereign citizen who is upset with you, and it can give you a big headache. Victims often spend a lot of time in civil court to clear their name and clean up the mess. Lawmakers want to put more teeth into two recently passed laws to slow these sovereigns down.
In May 2010, father and son Jerry and Joe Kane gunned down two West Memphis police officers during a traffic stop. That's when most people in the Mid-South first became familiar with the term 'sovereign citizen'. The Kanes considered themselves not subject to local laws.
Then last year, former Shelby County General Sessions Court Clerk Otis Jackson refused to obey a judge's order during a court appearance for his still pending corruption charge. The bizarre courtroom behavior came just days after Jackson filed sovereign paperwork.
"I was surprised when an employee told me Otis filed sovereign paperwork," stated Tom Leatherwood, the Shelby County Register of Deeds. It's his county office where official records are filed. "We are really just a public notice, a bulletin board that gives notice of the transaction."
There, sovereigns file things like 'right to travel' paperwork, which they believe lets them drive without a license. Another document, they claim allows them to forfeit their citizenship.
If used correctly, many of these documents are legal, but it's how they're used by sovereigns that's the problem. Upset sovereigns file bogus liens against police, judges, and prosecutors, including Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich.
Sovereigns also file bogus paperwork to take over homes. Michael Cobbs was arrested in 2010 after quit claim deeding himself several homes he had no legal right to.
State Representative Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett) is trying to stiffen the penalties for people who file these bogus liens and people who try to take someone's home illegally. Right now it's a just misdemeanor; the goal is to make it a felony, which means more punishment.
"What they are doing is illegal and it's costing money and causing problems," Lollar said.
Weirich added, "All this does is give us a hammer to go after criminals, but it's still the civil mess that has to be dealt with."
As for Shelby County's most well-known sovereign, Otis Jackson, his trial is expected to start Feb. 19. We'll be watching to see if this time Jackson listens to the judge, or acts up once again.