Sovereign citizens are a loose grouping of litigants, tax protestors and con artists who claim to be answerable only to a particular interpretation of common law, constitutions, statutes or court rules. They believe they should decide what laws to obey and don’t believe they should be compelled to pay taxes. In some cases, they engage in deadly violence against law enforcement and government officials to assert their “sovereignty” against the government. But, by and large, their most prevalent tactic is to engage in “paper terrorism”, meaning that they will clog up the court system, government agencies and municipal offices with incomprehensible documents alleging nonsensical interpretations of law and making ridiculous demands.
A particular version of paper terrorism from sovereign citizens is filing false liens and encumbrances against the property of government officials and other individuals at the local register of deeds office. Often, these liens are invalid, unenforceable and will not result in the submitter obtaining a legal interest in the land. However, these problematic filings become part of the chain of title and complicate the ability of owners to convey the land in the future. Anyone who records liens against another person’s property without lawful cause (also called “slander of title”) can be liable for civil and criminal penalties.
These crimes are just not limited to targeting sovereign citizens or similar groups. The charge of recording documents without lawful cause can be pressed against anyone who files illegal liens or other documents with the register of deeds with the intent to harass or intimidate another person.
CIVIL PENALTIES FOR RECORDING DOCUMENTS WITHOUT LAWFUL CAUSE OR SLANDER OF TITLE
Pursuant to MCL 600.2907a(1), a person who encumbers “property through the recording of a document without lawful cause with the intent to harass or intimidate any person is liable to the owner of the property encumbered for all of the following:”
- All of the costs incurred in bringing a legal action, including actual attorney fees.
- All damages the owner of the property may have sustained as a result of the filing of the encumbrance.
- Exemplary damages.
A person may also bring a cause of action for slander of title pursuant to MCL 565.108:
- “No person shall use the privilege of filing notices hereunder for the purpose of slandering the title to land, and in any action brought for the purpose of quieting title to land, if the court shall find that any person has filed a claim for that reason only, he shall award the plaintiff all the costs of such action, including such attorney fees as the court may allow to the plaintiff, and in addition, shall decree that the defendant asserting such claim shall pay to plaintiff all damages that plaintiff may have sustained as the result of such notice of claim having been so filed for record.”
Under either statute, the plaintiff must prove three elements: “falsity, malice, and special damage, i.e., that the defendant maliciously published false statements that disparaged a plaintiff’s right in property, causing special damages.” B&B Investment Group v Gitler, 229 Mich App 1, 8; 581 NW2d 17 (1998). Malice means that there was “a desire or intention to injure”. Glieberman v Fine, 248 Mich 8, 12; 226 NW 669 (1929).
In North Lake Investments LLC v Drolett, per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals decided August 26, 2014 (Docket No. 316222), the Droletts commenced a fraudulent conveyance suit against North Lake Investments LLC and had filed a lis pendens notice at the register of deeds against the property. The lis pendens complicated North Lake’s ability to sell the property. North Lake filed a slander of title action against the Droletts, alleging that the fraudulent conveyance suit had no merit (or otherwise lacked probable cause to bring it) and the filing of the lis pendens was done with malicious intent. The trial court ruled in favor of the Droletts, holding that North Lake failed to produce any evidence to show that they possessed the requisite malicious intent or that they lacked probable cause to bring their fraudulent conveyance action. Thus, the plaintiff has failed to sustain a claim for slander of title. On appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling and found the filing of the lis pendens was not malicious. “The fact that the Droletts’ claim may have been weak, and ultimately proved unsuccessful, does not demonstrate that it was filed out of malice.” Since there was a legitimate basis for filing, the slander of title action could not prevail.
CRIMINAL PENALTIES FOR RECORDING DOCUMENTS WITHOUT LAWFUL CAUSE
Pursuant to MCL 600.2907a(2), a person who encumbers “property through the recording of a document without lawful cause with the intent to harass or intimidate any person is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 3 years or a fine of not more than $5,000.00, or both.”
It is not a defense to allege that the document filed is not perfected according to the recording standards set in MCL 565.25. In People v Cynar, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals decided January 12, 2006 (Docket No, 257848), the defendant filed two dozen liens with the register of deeds office against the properties of various local officials over a dispute regarding the municipal sewer system. He was charged and convicted of ten counts of encumbering real property without lawful cause. Defendant alleged on appeal that could not have encumbered the property because the liens were not perfected according to law. The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that MCL 600.2907a(2) prohibits the encumbering of property by recording a document without lawful cause with the intent to harass or intimidate. “The criminal statute unambiguously attaches criminal liability to the act of recording the encumbering document, rather than perfecting it, provided the requisite intent is present.” Therefore, the law is violated as long as there is intent to harass or intimidate when recording. The Michigan Court of Appeals further concluded that the prosecutor satisfied proof of intent which, like any other fact, may be proven directly by inference from the conduct of the accused and surrounding circumstances from which it logically and reasonably follows:
- “Defendant contends that he filed the liens in an attempt to collect a $13,475 judgment. However, defendant filed ten liens, ranging from $250,000 to $1 million dollars each, against the real property of ten individuals who were not liable on the judgment. Further, some of the property owners testified to interactions with defendant that would support a finding that defendant had ill-will toward at least some of the property owners. Thus, based on the evidence presented at trial, the trial court could have concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant filed the liens with the intent to harass or intimidate the property owners.” Slip op at 4.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Whether you are the victim of having documents recorded against you without lawful cause or need to defend against such charges, you need skilled legal counsel in your corner to help you understand this difficult area of the law. Our law firm has unique experience in property law, criminal defense and civil litigation to help further your goals in these kinds of matters.
If you or a loved one have further questions or need legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.