Kim Lee Bonsteel, a self-proclaimed "Freeman" and "sovereign citizen," was in no mood to cooperate when police pulled him over for suspected drunken driving in the mountains of Western North Carolina a year ago.
Bonsteel refused to show a driver's license and locked the doors of his truck. Then he took off, leading officers on a chase through three counties that ended when he crashed into a guardrail. Among the casualties: two smashed patrol cars, three injured officers and a sheriff's deputy who died of a heart attack.The car chase, however, was only the start of Bonsteel's assault on the justice system. In response to his arrest, he sued virtually the entire Haywood County judiciary, insisting he was not subject to its laws and saying he deserved $28 million in damages for false imprisonment.
On top of that, Bonsteel exploited a loophole in securities law so he could file bogus multimillion-dollar liens against 17 public officials and the town of Waynesville, where the traffic stop occurred.
Although a judge later ruled that the lawsuit and liens were invalid, it was six months before the mess was sorted out.
"At first, I took him for a joke," said Waynesville Mayor Henry Foy, one of many people sued by Bonsteel. "But after a while, it just became ridiculous."
Bonsteel's case typifies the way many anti-government extremists fight the system these days. They say government has become so corrupt that it no longer holds any authority. As an alternative, they subscribe to a bizarre legal theory they refer to as common law and have set up their own courts.
But some hypocrisy is involved. While they reject the legal system, common-law believers don't hesitate to use legitimate courts as a weapon against their enemies.
In recent months, they have filed a flurry of frivolous lawsuits, causing monstrous legal headaches for those targeted.
In North Carolina, Freemen have filed perhaps two dozen suits and other legal actions, naming scores of public officials as defendants. Authorities have been taken aback by the suits. So far, the state attorney general's office has had to assign three staff attorneys to defend cases involving judges, magistrates and other court officials.
"It has been an aggravating thing, and it takes a tremendous amount of time," said District Court Judge John Snow, another target of Bonsteel's suit. "We've got enough to do in our court system. To have to deal with this just wears me out."
Officials in Waynesville, population 7,000, rue the day Bonsteel visited their town, just west of Asheville. Bonsteel was driving his red Chevy pickup along U.S. 23 when Waynesville Patrolman Brian Beck stopped him on suspicion of driving while impaired.
Instead of handing over his driver's license, the 41-year-old plumber rolled down his window a crack and gave Beck a three-page document declaring himself a "civil-rights investigator." Then he locked himself inside and refused to cooperate.
"The officer was quite surprised," said Waynesville Police Chief Frank Ross. "It was humorous. He'd never encountered that kind of behavior before."
After Bonsteel refused to budge, Beck lost his patience and smashed the driver's side window of the pickup. Rather than submit, Bonsteel fled.
Although he never drove faster than 60 mph, Bonsteel led officers from three counties on a 40-mile chase along mountain roads. It ended when he swerved to avoid a roadblock in Franklin, his hometown in Macon County. He was arrested and charged with assaulting officers with his truck, driving while impaired and various traffic offenses. In August, a jury convicted him on 18 charges. Sentenced to seven years in prison, he is serving time at the Pender Correctional Facility in Burgaw.
During his trial, Bonsteel remained obstinate. He refused to acknowledge his name, referring to himself as John Doe. During one hearing, he told a judge he had had enough and announced that from then on he would stand mute.
Bonsteel may have been quiet in the courtroom, but he had plenty to say on paper. He sued for his release from jail, naming 30 public officials as defendants, including several judges, magistrates and county commissioners and Gov. Jim Hunt.
In other legal papers, prepared with help of an anonymous friend, Bonsteel claimed he was being illegally detained.
Bonsteel continued to demand payment from public officials. He sent monthly invoices to people named in his suit, billing them $20,000 for each day he spent in jail and $2.7 million for each hearing held in his criminal case. After six months, he claimed to be owed $28 million.
Nobody took the invoices seriously at first. Nobody, that is, except for the secretary of state's office in Raleigh. Bonsteel's anonymous pal, who would identify himself only as "Next Friend," used the bogus damages claim as a basis for filing liens against the 17 public officials.The liens were filed under the Uniform Commercial Code at the secretary of state's office. UCC liens are commercial transactions in which a debtor posts collateral for a loan. Normally, the debtor needs to sign a UCC lien to make it legal.
But Bonsteel's buddy found a loophole in the UCC code that enabled him to file the liens without the debtors' signatures and, amazingly, without using his name. He simply checked a box that indicated the case was part of a matter already on file, which it wasn't.
UCC liens show up on debtors' credit records. So the people named as owing Bonsteel money - an assortment of judges and elected officials from Waynesville - soon discovered they had a blot that, among other things, could prevent them from borrowing money.
Such liens, even phony ones, are difficult to remove once on the books. In this instance, it took five months and a judge's order.
Judy Chapman, director of the UCC office for the secretary of state, said common-law believers have discovered a couple of loopholes in the arcane UCC code that enable them to attach illegitimate liens. She said her staff has identified three or four people who have made repeated attempts to submit liens, but didn't know how many times the bogus papers had actually been recorded.
"It definitely creates a problem for us and for those people they are filing against," said Chapman said. "It really concerned me when we started getting these things, because they look so official. But they're really a big hoax."
Chapman said little can be done to prevent the filings. The secretary of state's office simply records the liens and is not legally empowered to check whether they are fake. One solution, she said, would be for the General Assembly to give her staff the authority to investigate dubious claims.
Until then, the UCC office tries to spot people who act like Freemen. One giveaway: when lien filers insist on signing documents with a thumbprint, a common-law custom.
Anti-government types are also hounding the federal judiciary. At least five federal lawsuits are pending in the Eastern District of North Carolina alone, in which members of Our One Supreme Court, a common-law court in Lenoir County, have sued dozens of judges, sheriffs, police officers and clerks of court.
In each case, the dispute arose over something routine, such as a traffic ticket.
In another federal case filed last year in North Carolina, a Johnston County couple sued a Johnston County prosecutor and several New York officials, accusing them of conspiracy and kidnapping, among other crimes. The couple, Russell Landers and Dana Dudley, are among the Freemen engaged in an armed standoff with the FBI at a Montana ranch. A judge ruled against Landers and Dudley, but it took four months to dismiss the case.
New York City police had arrested Landers and Dudley in July 1994 for helping operate a nationwide scam in which they falsely claimed the federal government owed each of its citizens $20 million or more.
To collect the money, people had to pay a $300 "filing fee" to a group called We The People. About 6,000 people in 49 states did, but they never received anything in return, authorities charge.
Authorities fear that the lawsuits are only the beginning of a wave of attacks on the legal system by common-law believers and other anti-government extremists.
Indeed, in a telephone interview from prison, Bonsteel said he plans to file a new suit against 50 public officials who he claims have done him wrong at one time or another.