Sovereign citizens and tax protestors—public defenders of have represented them all. Some sovereign citizens may not explicitly identify themselves as such, but they firmly believe a bevy of unorthodox theories about the U.S. government. It can be difficult to judge whether these sovereign-citizen clients suffer from a mental disease or whether they have simply spent too much time on the Internet. Airiz Coleman was one such person.
The government accused Mr. Coleman of being a felon in possession of a firearm after a bizarre interaction when a recovery agent tried to repossess his car. In court, Mr. Coleman’s behavior was also strange; he claimed that the court lacked jurisdiction over him and that he was charged with a “commercial crime” for which he did not need to answer.
This behavior continued as Mr. Coleman’s relationship with two different lawyers broke down. Right before his trial, he filed a host of documents with nontraditional punctuation, capitalization, and numerous terms of legalese sprinkled throughout an otherwise incomprehensible document. The judge denied each of these pretrial motions.
After a jury found Mr. Coleman guilty, Mr. Coleman filed a motion for a third attorney, dissatisfied with the result of the trial. He claimed his third attorney demanded a fee for a not-guilty verdict, was unprepared for trial, and even that he rendered ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland standard. The court denied that motion, as well.
At the sentencing hearing, Mr. Coleman sounded a bit more lucid. He described his troubled upbringing and his love for his family. He begged for mercy. But he told the judge that, if released from prison, he had a “guaranteed job on anger management in LA with Charlie Sheen”—a strange remark. Unmoved, the district judge sentenced Mr. Coleman to three years’ incarceration.
On appeal, Mr. Coleman’s fourth attorney asserted that the district court erred by failing to order a competency evaluation sua sponte. The Sixth Circuit therefore had to decide whether there was reasonable cause to believe Mr. Coleman was suffering from a mental disease or defect that rendered him mentally incompetent. The legal standard for incompetency is frustratingly high. A person is incompetent to stand trial if (1) he or she does not have a sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, or (2) lacks a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings.
The Sixth Circuit noted that the district court had no evidence that Mr. Coleman had been diagnosed with a mental illness in the past. It also examined Mr. Coleman’s strange behavior in court. But the court reasoned that his repeated reference to civil legal matters, nonsensical use of legal jargon, and unorthodox filings demonstrated that he actually knew exactly what was going on: he knew that he was in court, that courts cannot act without jurisdiction, and even that attorneys must be constitutionally effective (he referenced Strickland, after all). No, the Sixth Circuit said, he did not have a mental disease; he was just a sovereign citizen—or at least sovereign-citizen-ish, which is a belief system, not a mental defect. The court also viewed Mr. Coleman’s presentation at his sentencing hearing as evidence that he could keep it together and act relatively normal when he wanted or needed to do so. Untroubled by Mr. Coleman’s bizarre claim that he had guaranteed work with Charlie Sheen, the court speculated that Mr. Coleman might be imitating the actor’s on- and off-screen behavior to gain an advantage.
In addition, the court was not convinced that Mr. Coleman’s potential mental illness prevented him from communicating effectively with counsel. Instead, the court believed the record demonstrated that Mr. Coleman was just a difficult client who was refusing to communicate with counsel.
In short, the Sixth Circuit believed Mr. Coleman hammed up and toned down his peculiar behavior to gain a tactical advantage. By the court’s estimation, Mr. Coleman was just cunning.