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The Strange Case of Squatters' Sovereignty

A new twist on property rights, in a suburb outside of Washington, D.C.

It’s one thing to claim the government shouldn’t mess with your property because you own it and have the records to prove it. It’s another to claim the government shouldn’t interfere with your "rights" to someone else’s property.  

The basis of the claim? Well, in one well-publicized case in the Maryland suburbs northwest of Washington, D.C., someone is claiming that his religion and ethnic identity provide him with sovereign rights and that the "Public Servant Trustee Police Enforcers for the private foreign corporate-for-profit entity styled as Montgomery County Police Department" have no legal standing to enforce laws against trespassing or breaking and entering.

On one level, my sympathy for the owner of record of the property in dispute is tempered somewhat by the fact that it’s a 12-bedroom and 6-kitchen mansion, satellite photo above. I figure the guy has had enough breaks in life and maybe is due for a karmic hit. But not really – this is crazy.

This whole case strikes me as bizarre. Often I’ve written that the market for large-lot sprawl is dying, because the contemporary housing market, especially the sizable portion represented by the millennial generation under 30 or so, wants more urbanity.  A memorable title to a 2008 article written by my friend Chris Leinberger suggested that large-lot housing outside of urban areas might become “the next slum,” because of a structural change in the housing market signaling “a major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work." Some observers have even suggested that McMansions will be in such little demand that they could be carved up into affordable housing.

Indeed, my own analysis of 3-year changes in average home prices around metropolitan Washington, D.C. shows that all the zip codes whose average sales prices dropped by 25 percent or more during the recession were in outer suburbs dominated by large-lot housing.

change in home proces, Dec 2006-Dec 2009 (by: FK Benfield, image via Google Earth)

I believe these big-picture trends will continue to prove out. But Lamont Butler apparently hasn't gotten the memo. According to a story written by Dan Morse and published in The Washington Post, Butler, who prefers to be called Lamont Maurice El, entered the vacant, for-sale mansion in west Bethesda and began to make it his home:

The personable 28-year-old, known to wear a red fez, didn’t own the mansion; he had simply slipped inside and claimed it. Taking part in an odd and perplexing phenomenon popping up in cities across the country, Butler said the Bethesda mansion belonged to him because he is a Moorish American National. He’d drawn up paperwork that he said proved it all, with references to a 1787 peace treaty and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

The somewhat cluttered website of the Moorish American Government of the Continental American Territories sports a sovereign flag, a Grand National Seal, a Grand National Emblem, and a link via which visitors may donate. It also includes photos of ten mayors, including Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, who apparently issued proclamations honoring Moorish American Week in January, along with photos of three American presidents, including a particularly odd one of former President George W. Bush.

To be fair, a good bit of the movement’s apparent philosophy honors human rights and criticizes the sad and too-long chapter of slavery in the U.S., in ways that are hard to argue with. But it essentially claims that all black people living in America are really Moorish American nationals.  And it carries these ideas to some conclusions that would wreak havoc on American property law, to say the least. Morse’s article in the Post picks up Butler’s story:

Moorish American flag (via Moorish American Government website)

He rolled out a historic map, presented documents and requested that tax records be updated to reflect his ownership of the mansion. Green told him that without a proper deed showing a transfer, she couldn’t do anything.

Butler told police he wanted the house as an embassy for the Moors.

The incident may be bizarre, but it is far from unique. Morse’s story reports a similar house-napping incident in Memphis. And, in an interesting interview with National Public Radio, Spencer Dew, an assistant professor of religious studies at the Centenary College of Louisiana, cited a woman in Connecticut who identifies as Moorish and claimed her house "is no longer part of the United States of America."

Here's an incident from Tampa: According to a story written by Lisa Buie for the Tampa Bay Times, a woman who prefers to be called Zuri Akila Betiti Matawala Zurj-Bey, a "grand sheikess" in the Moorish Temple of Science of the World, was arrested in 2012 for driving with counterfeit car tags styled "Moorish American Republic 070117-004."

Buie’s article says that the woman, known in records from South Carolina as Shanita Marie Burden, had traveled from Columbia (SC) over the summer to tell African-Americans that "they are not really US citizens or subject to its government. Instead, they are Moorish, with ancestral roots in Morocco." Buie writes:

Though once the domain of mostly white supremacist groups, the sovereign movement found black followers under the Moorish affiliation. The idea gained popularity in the 1990s when adherents of the Moorish Temple of Science of the World discovered the ideology of the sovereign citizen movement.

There are also people whose Moorish ancestry is, um, better documented and who are rather normal. In the NPR interview, Dew points out that they end up expending a lot of energy and a lot of concern over the fact that "the name of their religion is being used to defraud others and make a lot of money for some questionable characters." No doubt.

The Post article on Butler has drawn over 1,200 reader comments, some of which are offensive and some of which are pretty funny, if not quite printable here.

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.