Two so-called sovereign citizens have been found guilty of impersonating police officers for presenting themselves as “peace officers” at COVID-denier demonstrations in the UK.
Experts hope the ruling will have a chilling effect on the practice, which has become common at anti-vax protests as sovereign citizen ideology - a fringe anti-government conspiracy theory - has become a driving force in the COVID conspiracy movement.
David Stewart, 54, and Jessica Collins, 32, from Haywards Heath, West Sussex, were convicted of the charge at Horsham Magistrates Court on Wednesday. Stewart was fined £392 and ordered to pay £689 in costs, while Collins was fined £126 with £684 in costs.
Prosecutors said the couple had been charged for wearing police-style outfits - hats and hi-vis vests with a chequered strip, distinctive shoulder detailing, and black cargo trousers - at a COVID-denier demonstration in Crawley in October.
It’s believed to be one of the first such convictions of sovereign citizens - followers of a fringe, anti-government ideology that’s become a driving force in the radical COVID conspiracy movement - for their recent practice of presenting themselves as “peace officers” at anti-vax, anti-lockdown demos across the UK.
Sovereign citizens, who use convoluted pseudo-legal arguments to falsely claim that the government is illegitimate, claim that their “peace officers,” sometimes known as peace constables, have the authority to uphold their version of the law. These “peace officers” have become a frequent sight at COVID-denier demos claiming that coronavirus is a hoax, and in direct action protests where anti-vaxxers have tried to shut down vaccination centres, claiming that they are actually crime scenes.
At an earlier court appearance in October, prosecutor Mariea Slater said that members of the public told police they had approached Stewart and Collins at a demonstration on October the 2nd, believing they were police officers.
But the couple insisted they were not trying to deceive the public. After their October court appearance, at which fellow COVID conspiracists gathered outside the courthouse dressed as police, Stewart told the Sussex Express that they regularly appeared as peace officers at COVID-denier demonstrations.
Following his appearance on Wednesday, Stewart said in a video interview with a fellow COVID conspiracist that their convictions were a “sham,” and that they intended to appeal.
Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue who monitors the COVID conspiracy movement, told VICE World News that he hoped the convictions would deter sovereign citizens from presenting themselves as “peace officers.”
“The notion of COVID protesters impersonating police officers presents a risk not only to other police officers, but potentially politicians, public health officials and members of the public who are deemed to be [guilty] of an offence in their eyes,” he said.
He said the fact that many within the radical anti-vax movement were motivated by conspiracy theories made them a greater risk of dangerous actions
“If someone is impersonating a police officer [and] is motivated by sovereign citizen ideologies and believes in COVID conspiracy theories, it may encourage them to act and attempt to enforce ‘their’ laws - and that is a potentially harmful situation for the public,” he said.