From New Jersey to California, police, courthouse officials and real-estate agents are being confronted with a baffling new problem: bogus legal documents filed by people claiming to follow an obscure religion called Moorish Science. Their motives range from financial gain to simply causing a nuisance.
No one is more exasperated by the phenomenon than the leaders of the century-old Moorish Science Temple of America, who say the growing crop of “paperwork terrorists” has nothing to do with their faith or its teachings.
“It’s just distressing that some individuals would take something as pure and righteous as this organization and try to tarnish it,” said Christopher Bennett-Bey, grand sheikh of the group’s temple in Charlotte, one of more than 30 located around the country.
It is not clear why the flimflam artists are invoking the group. However, one expert said divisions dating back to the death of the sect’s founder have resulted in small pockets of people who claim to be followers, but have little understanding of the faith.
The bad filings include deeds, liens and other documents, often written in confusing pseudo--legal jargon and making outlandish claims about being exempt from US law. In some cases, filers have actually moved into foreclosed houses and changed the locks. Other times, people seeking to slip their mortgages have used bogus documents to waste the time and money of their banks. Fake liens have also been maliciously filed to target enemies.
“The ideas are particularly attractive to people who are hurting economically, although let’s be candid: For some people it’s just pure greed,” said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.
Law enforcement can pursue theft or fraud charges if a case warrants it, but states’ laws vary on whether filing sham paperwork is a crime in itself. Lawmakers in North Carolina failed to pass a law making bad filings a crime this year.
As long as a legal document is properly formatted, county officials have to file it alongside valid paperwork, according to Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds David Granberry. The content, however, is often outlandish and includes strange punctuation and capitalization or lengthy digressions about the 14th Amendment, the Constitution or maritime law.
Having a bogus lien or deed legally purged requires the county — or the subject of the lien — to go through a potentially lengthy process that often involves hiring lawyers. A document with a US$50 filing fee can easily end up costing the county US$2,000, Granberry said.
The tactics being used by the Moor impostors originated with tax-dodgers and white supremacist groups in the 1980s, experts said.
The occupation of foreclosed homes appears to be a new wrinkle, Potok said. They often end in the arrests of the squatters.
Leaders of the largest Moorish Science group are baffled by the tactic.
Moorish Science followers trace their faith back to 1913 and revere its founder, North Carolina native Timothy Drew, as a prophet. They call him the Noble Drew Ali. The faith blends aspects of Islam with elements of other faiths and philosophies, and has its own scriptures. The Moorish Science Temple taught that the people called blacks were actually the descendants of “Asiatic Moors” or Moroccans who had been in North America for hundreds of years.