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A Costilla County man who represented himself as a "continental marshal" and said he "could take over the jail" had his conviction for impersonating a peace officer reversed last week, after the state's second-highest court determined his comments were "only speech."

Jeremy David Costley is part of the sovereign citizen movement, which believes the federal government is illegitimate and that state laws and regulations do not apply to its members. Costley had also signed an oath declaring that "I have jurisdiction in all matters of all states, and estates, nations, and countries."

Although Costley's oath and statements to sheriff's employees suggested he believed he was a marshal, the Court of Appeals on Thursday threw out his conviction, reasoning that he had not actually performed an act while pretending to be a law enforcement officer.

Judge Lino S. Lipinsky de Orlov, calling it a "close case," wrote for a three-judge panel that the outcome "would have been different had the evidence established that Costley crossed the fine line between speech and action."

In the court's narrative of the case, Costley and his wife were scheduled to meet with the sheriff of Costilla County, but the sheriff was unavailable due to an illness. The county jail's administrator said that Costley became agitated at the meeting's cancelation, and claimed that he was a "marshal" who was "willing to take over for" the sheriff.

The jail administrator relayed the encounter to Sgt. Paul Quintana, who later testified that Costley had indicated he was "a constitutional marshal and that he could take over the jail because the sheriff wasn’t available."

When the Costleys were able to meet with the sheriff, Quintana was in attendance and secretly video recorded the conversation. The purpose of the meeting was for Costley to discuss his various concerns with the sheriff. He did not again claim that he was a marshal until Quintana asked him directly.

In response, Costley maintained there was a "continental government for the republic of the people," in which he was a "true peace officer." He explained his sovereign citizen beliefs that federal and state law did not apply to him.

Upon request, Costley showed Quintana a written oath to be a "Marshal of The Continental uNited [sic] States of America," which contained pseudo-legal language purporting to grant Costley the ability to "set warrants, writs, and orders, against all individuals ... and shall nullify (and) void all gratuitous bailments (and) contracts."

Prosecutors charged him with impersonating a peace officer, forgery and criminal impersonation. In 2018, a jury convicted him of the first count and Costley received a sentence of incarceration.

Under Colorado law, an impersonation conviction requires that a person falsely pretend to be a police officer while performing "an act in that pretended capacity." The prosecution at Costley's trial told the jury that simply setting up a meeting with the sheriff was enough to constitute an act.

The law "doesn’t say performed an act that a law enforcement officer would perform in that capacity," the prosecutor argued. When Costley spoke with the sheriff about public safety, "he’s not going there as a citizen; he’s taking that act in the capacity of a continental marshal. And that is a crime."

The Court of Appeals panel was not convinced.

"The video recording of the meeting shows that Costley spoke with the county employees regarding issues in the community without referring to his alleged role as a 'continental marshal' until Sergeant Quintana changed the subject," Lipinsky wrote in the Jan. 6 opinion.

Even if Costley had spoken to the sheriff while holding himself out as pretend law enforcement, "It was only speech," Lipinsky added.

As to Costley's supposed statement that he could take over the jail in the sheriff's absence, the panel believed it mattered whether Costley asserted he "could" do something, versus whether he "would" do something.

The panel ordered that Costley's conviction be revised to reflect an acquittal. 

A 2017 Westword report that profiled Costley and the sovereign citizen movement in the San Luis Valley indicated that Costilla County deputies had received training about how to interact with sovereign citizens. It was around the time that Costley engaged in a four-hour standoff with law enforcement who tried to arrest him on the impersonation charge.

"During the training, they indicated that the No. 1 domestic terrorists in the United States are sovereign citizens,” said Undersheriff Ricky Rodriguez at the time.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations considers sovereign citizens a domestic terrorism threat.

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