Back in January, when he was arrested by the FBI, nothing could convince Arthur Cropp that his self-proclaimed status as a “sovereign citizen” didn’t allow him to peddle fraudulent money orders as if they were real.
But during the last 10 months, which he spent in jail, Cropp, 31, of the North Charleston area, has become the rare sovereign citizen who realized he was living in a delusional outlaw world and has returned to normal.
“Brain-washing is an old-fashioned term,” said Cropp’s court-appointed attorney Jack Duncan, as he stood with Cropp in federal court in Columbia last week to hear what sentence a federal judge would pronounce.
But brainwashing is what happened to Cropp when he “self-radicalized” on the internet, Duncan said.
Now, thanks to an intense reading program of fact-filled books about U.S. history while he was in jail this year awaiting sentencing, Cropp has returned to normal and is fit to be a law-abiding citizen again, Duncan said.
Federal Judge Cameron McGowan Currie agreed.
“I’ve had quite a few sovereign citizens, and I have not seen someone go through the process and understand how they were misled,” Currie told Cropp. When she saw Cropp earlier in the year, his delusions about the sovereign citizens were such that his behavior was “basically out of control,” she said.
Sovereign citizens, who number in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S., are anti-government extremists who believe they “don’t have to answer to any government authority, including courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments or law enforcement,” according to the FBI, which classifies them as “domestic terrorists.”
Many sovereign citizens believe the U.S. government is sitting on secret bank accounts that can be accessed by the fraudulent documents they create, according to the FBI. Although some sovereign citizens use guns and can be violent, they are mostly known for their extreme anti-government, anti-tax mindsets that cause them to file frivolous lawsuits and create fake financial instruments to defraud others. According to the FBI, their propensity to commit financial fraud distinguishes them from another main type of anti-government extremist: gun-toting militia groups.
At last week’s sentencing hearing, Currie gave Cropp a year and a day in prison, and said that his 10 months in jail awaiting sentencing would count toward that sentence.
“Given your change, I don’t see how a longer sentence is necessary,” the judge said.
Currie also praised Duncan for persisting in bringing Cropp history books and other fact-based literature that led to Cropp’s conversion.
Duncan told Currie that in the past, he had given other sovereign citizens he represented books to read so they could understand how they were being misled.
Cropp was different because “unlike my other clients, he actually read the books,” Duncan said. “I genuinely believe he has seen the light.”
As a sovereign citizen, Cropp had created false documents and money orders totaling more than $180,000 to buy a 2019 BMW Roadster valued at $189,000 and a 2018 GMC Yukon valued at $77,000, an indictment in his case said. He also created false identification papers when applying for a U.S. passport, the indictment said. The FBI investigated the case. Cropp pleaded guilty last summer.
Assistant U.S. Attorney DeWayne Pearson, who had noted that the usual sentence for Cropp’s offense would be up to 27 months in prison, did not object to the judge’s leniency.
Currie said her decision was influenced by Duncan’s presentation, an evaluation by psychiatrist Donna Maddox and supportive statements by Cropp’s family members, friends and former employers, 17 of whom were in court to show support.
“He chased false gods,” Tarvasha Cropp, the defendant’s older sister told the judge, saying that for more than a year her brother had been arrogant and acting “as if he were untouchable.”
Tarvasha Cropp said her brother had low-wage jobs and was initially attracted to the sovereign citizen movement because he believed their claims about making easy money.
Currie told Cropp he would be on probation for three years after he gets out of prison. Having probation agents check on him regularly will ensure “that you really have changed and really are going to go on the straight and narrow from now on,” she said.
Another restriction that pertains to financial fraud cases, Cropp cannot open any lines of credit or get a credit card without his probation agent’s approval.
“You have a lot of family support out there — don’t screw up it,” the judge told Cropp.
“I’m not coming back,” Cropp said.
Duncan said after court: “A lot of people say that, but I really believe it here.”