Sovereign Citizen Who Retaliated Against Federal Officials by Filing False Liens Sentenced to Seven Years in Prison
After nearly two years, the federal prosecution of Cherron Marie Phillips, a/k/a “River Tali,” ended yesterday with Phillips being sentenced to a seven year prison term, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, Stephen R. Wigginton, announced today.
Phillips, a 43 year old Chicago native, was indicted back in November 2012 with knowingly filing false maritime liens against the property of a dozen current and former federal employees, including former United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, in retaliation for their involvement in the investigation and prosecution of her brother, Devon Phillips. A jury in Chicago convicted her on 10 of 12 counts in June of this year.
During the trial, the government presented evidence that from 2006 to 2011, Phillips’s brother, Devon Phillips, had been investigated and prosecuted in the Northern District of Illinois for trafficking cocaine. Cherron Phillips regularly attended his court proceedings and filed documents in the record objecting to the jurisdiction of the court. She filed the liens—each in the amount of $100 billion—in the spring of 2011, several weeks after her brother was sentenced. The existence of the liens wasn’t discovered until later that summer, when one of the victims was attempting a real estate transaction.
During the execution of a federal search warrant, the FBI located the original liens locked inside a safe in Phillips’ master bedroom. The FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia was able to identify Phillips’ fingerprints on nine of the twelve liens. After her indictment, Phillips sent a letter to five of the victims, apologizing for what she termed “a serious mistake.”
To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, the trial was presided over by the Honorable Michael J. Reagan, now the Chief United States District Judge for the Southern District of Illinois. After accepting the jury’s verdict, Judge Reagan ordered Phillips detained pending sentencing, calling her “a paper terrorist” and citing his concerns for the safety of the community if she were allowed to remain on bond.
In a written memorandum he filed before sentencing, Judge Reagan noted that Phillips subscribes to the “sovereign citizen” ideology—a belief that the government is operating outside its jurisdiction and that by taking certain prescribed steps, citizens can live in this country without abiding by its laws. It was these “misguided beliefs” and “tortured logic,” he wrote, that formed the basis for her crimes. During the sentencing hearing, Phillips read aloud from a prepared statement and claimed the court did not have jurisdiction over her, prompting Judge Reagan to observe that even now, “she simply doesn’t get it.”
Although the United States Sentencing Guidelines recommended a range of 63 to 78 months in prison, Judge Reagan went above the Guidelines, imposing what he acknowledged was a “lengthy” 84-month sentence. “Society cannot tolerate” retaliation against government officials, he explained, citing the need for the sentence to promote respect for the law, provide just punishment, and afford adequate deterrence. Judge Reagan also pointed out that, shortly before trial, Phillips served him and the prosecutor with a lawsuit that claimed they were conspiring with the FBI and others to deprive her of her constitutional rights. Though the suit has yet to be filed, Judge Reagan viewed it as an attempt to obstruct justice and cited it as evidence that Phillips had not learned from her mistakes, noting that it made her prior acts of contrition “ring hollow.”
Federal law mandates that defendants must serve at least 85% of their prison sentences, thus Phillips will likely spend the better part of the next six years behind bars. After that, she will have three years of supervised release, during which time she is specifically prohibited from filing any claims, liens, or lawsuits without first obtaining the court’s permission. As part of her sentence, Phillips was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and a $1,000 special assessment, as well as restitution to the victims for any expenses they might incur in clearing the liens. On a motion from the United States, the court also signed an order from the bench declaring the liens null and void, releasing them, and ordering that they be afforded “no legal force or effect whatsoever.” That order and a copy of the final judgment will be recorded in the public record in Cook County, Illinois, where the liens were originally filed.
U.S. Attorney Wigginton was grateful for the opportunity to conduct the prosecution and praised the sentence as a victory for justice. “Investigators, prosecutors, judges, courthouse personnel, and other public servants should not have to look over their shoulders for fear of something like this happening to them simply because they were doing their jobs,” Wigginton stated. “This sentence sends a strong message that those who work every day for the administration of justice deserve to do so without fear, threat, intimidation, or reprisal.”
The investigation of this case was conducted by the Chicago field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, acting in concert with the United States Marshals Service. The United States is also grateful for the assistance it received from the Office of the Cook County Recorder of Deeds. The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan D. Stump.