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United States v. Hutson

United States District Court, D. Colorado

January 10, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
ROCKY HUTSON, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE

          Marcia S. Krieger Chief United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court pursuant to Mr. Hutson's oral request for leave to present evidence (and receive instructions consistent with) an affirmative defense under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), [1] 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et. seq. Mr. Hutson filed a Trial Memorandum (# 119) setting forth certain aspects of his request and the Government filed a responsive Trial Memorandum (# 137). On January 8, 2018, the Court heard lengthy argument from counsel, testimony from Mr. Hutson, and received documentary evidence. At the conclusion of that hearing, the Court orally denied Mr. Hutson's motion. This Opinion elaborates on the reasons for that denial.

         FACTS

         As background, the Court recites some of the pertinent evidence here, and elaborates as necessary in its analysis.

         Mr. Hutson is charged with five counts of making false claims against the United States in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 287, six counts of creating false financial instruments in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 514(a)(1), and three counts of bank fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1344.

         Mr. Hutson was a member of the Colorado Free State Republic.[2] That entity is affiliated with a national entity called the Republic for the United States of America. More generally, Mr. Hutson describes himself as a “Sovereign Citizen.” As a Sovereign Citizen and member of the aforementioned groups, Mr. Hutson believes that all persons are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, ” as stated in the Declaration of Independence. He believes that the Creator[3] has set forth certain “laws of nature” that must be obeyed by the people. These precise laws are unclear, but they appear to be related to the inalienable rights described in the Declaration of Independence: essentially, the ability to freely enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The people, in turn, create government to regulate their affairs, although the government is answerable to the people and can never supersede the Creator's natural law. Mr. Hutson believes that the current form of American government is no longer responsive to the people's needs and desires, and is therefore corrupt. Therefore, he believes that he has an obligation to oppose that government and to help others to do so, so that people can “live without government rule.”

         Sovereign Citizens observe certain rituals. Mr. Hutson's testimony and argument focuses on the ritual entitled “redemption.” He explains that at the time of each citizen's birth, the government “pledge[s] the lifetime earning capacity of each of its citizens to foreign investors” and simultaneously creates a bank account that “holds cash collateral for this pledge.”[4] (Later, at trial, Mr. Hutson referred to this account as his “birth certificate fund, ” and the Court will adopt this label for purposes of this opinion.) Normally, the birth certificate fund is only made available to an artificial, government-created “strawman” that bears the same name as the citizen.[5] To obtain access to the birth certificate fund, the citizen must “redeem” the money, by disclaiming or extinguishing the existence of the strawman. The redemption ritual is performed by the citizen mailing certain forms, documents -- Mr. Hutson testified that he “turned in my Social Security card, . . . turned in my birth certificate” -- and a blank check drawn on the citizen's closed personal checking account, to various government agencies. The mailing appears to complete the ritual, as Mr. Hutson testified that he expected no response from the government officials. He explained that he understood that, through their silence, the government manifested its acceptance of his redemption.

         Mr. Hutson explained that, once redemption was completed, the citizen acquired the status of a “secured party creditor.” A secured party creditor could then draw upon the birth certificate fund by issuing checks - typically drawn on the citizen's closed personal checking account -- with the routing and account numbers altered by hand. The secured party creditor writes in the routing number of the Federal Reserve Bank branch where the citizen was born, and replaces the printed account number with his Social Security number.[6] Mr. Hutson explained that the various checks and claims would thereafter be paid by the government from funds in the citizen's birth certificate account. As Mr. Hutson explained “the paperwork that was sent in was supposed to open up the account that the Treasury has [and] every EFT that was sent in, every promissory note that was sent in, would have been and should have been taken care of by the U.S. Treasury.” Mr. Hutson testified that he completed the redemption ritual and became a secured party creditor in September or October 2011.

         These beliefs set the stage for the charged conduct in this case. Mr. Hutson is accused of issuing false checks to various entities. Mr. Hutson is also accused of sending invoices or payment requests to the U.S.D.A., requesting that they remit funds to, among others, a motorcycle dealership, to pay for purchases Mr. Hutson wishes to make. These requests were also accompanied by modified checks drawn on Mr. Hutson's closed personal checking account, made payable to the United States of America.

         Mr. Hutson testified briefly about his beliefs concerning an afterlife. He stated that, upon his death, he hopes that “go see my Creator and be taken in.” His referenced the notion of “divine providence, ” as that term is used in the closing paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, [7] testifying that he understands it to mean that “as long as we're doing so in a nonviolent manner, we will go to our Creator with no worries.” Mr. Hutson states that the Republic of the United States is “a religion, ” because “every meeting that has taken place, we ask for guidance from God in a prayer before the meeting starts. We pledge our allegiance to God and the United States.” Mr. Hutson believes that whether the meeting is being held in a “$10 million building” or in a park, “God is going to be present there.” As discussed herein, however, the Republic of the United States' own document expressly states that it is “not a religion.”

         ANALYSIS

         Mr. Hutson requests that he be permitted to admit evidence, to receive jury instructions on, and to include in the verdict form certain interrogatories regarding an affirmative defense under RFRA. Courts have recognized RFRA as creating an affirmative defense that the accused can raise in a criminal prosecution. U.S. v. Quaintance, 608 F.3d 717, 719 (10th Cir. 2010); U.S. v. Christie, 825 F.3d 1048, 1055 (9th Cir. 2016).

         RFRA provides that the Government is generally prohibited from burdening a person's exercise of religion, even by operation of a law of general applicability. 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(a). A person may assert this provision of RFRA as a defense in a criminal proceeding. 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(c). If a person asserts that enforcement of a criminal statute has burdened his religious exercise, the statute can only be enforced if: (i) it is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest, and (ii) that the statute is the least-restrictive means of furthering that interest. 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(b).

         A. Defendant's burden

         The burden of going forward is on the criminal defendant, who must demonstrate that: (i) he has a sincerely-held religious belief, and (ii) that his belief or practice is substantially burdened by the enforcement of the criminal statutes he is charged with violating. Quaintance, 608 F.3d at 719-20.

         1. “Religious” belief

         The first question is whether the defendant holds a belief that is religious in nature. The Supreme Court clearly distinguishes between beliefs that are religious in nature and those that are based on “purely secular considerations.” Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 216 (1972). Beyond acknowledging this distinction, the Supreme Court has offered no meaningful guidance, largely observing simply that the matter presents “a most delicate question.” Id. The 10th Circuit has provided greater guidance, identifying five primary factors and numerous sub-factors that help determine whether beliefs are religious in nature. U.S. v. Meyers, 95 F.3d 1475, 1483 (10thCir. 1996).[8] The major factors are: (i) “ultimate ideas, ” in that the beliefs address “existential matters, such as man's sense of being; teleological matters, such as man's purpose in life; and cosmological matters, such as man's place in the universe”; (ii) “metaphysical beliefs, ” that “address a reality which transcends the physical and immediately-apparent world”; (iii) a moral or ethical system that “describe certain acts in normative terms, such as “right and wrong, ” “good and evil, ” or “just and unjust”; (iv) comprehensiveness, in that the beliefs offer “an overreaching array of beliefs that coalesce to provide the believer with answers to many, if not most, of the problems and concerns that confront humans, ” rather than being beliefs “confined to one question or a ...


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