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New Underwood man faces prison time in water bill dispute
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New Underwood man faces prison time in water bill dispute

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A New Underwood man has been charged with grand theft for refusing to pay his water bill. 

For six months, a man who has beliefs similar to the sovereign citizens movement allegedly refused to pay his water bill and now faces prison time after the New Underwood City Council voted to report him to police.

James Kopecky, 57, was in court Tuesday to answer to two felony charges: grand theft for allegedly stealing $1,239 worth of city water and refusing to provide a DNA sample in connection with the case. Kopecky's longtime partner, 51-year-old Misty Koch, has been charged with aiding and abetting the theft. 

The pair's arraignment at state court in Rapid City was rescheduled, however, after Kopecky was argumentative with Judge Heidi Linngren. 

"You don't get to interrupt me," Linngren told Kopecky as he made his various legal arguments, sometimes looking down at his hand-written notes.

"Stop, stop," she continued, or you will end up over there, gesturing to where jailed defendants were sitting.

Kopecky's court-appointed lawyer, Paul Pietz, said his client does not believe in the jurisdiction of the court and has ordered him not to talk or approach him. Kopecky, who said he wants to represent himself, refused to enter a plea Tuesday, saying he believed it would be double jeopardy to do that after already doing so in magistrate court. 

Linngren rescheduled the arraignment for 1:15 p.m. on Dec. 18 and as part of their bond conditions ordered the couple to meet with their lawyers. She said if they want to make arguments about jurisdiction and representing themselves, they need to do it with written motions. 

Kopecky identifies as a sovereign citizen, two deputies with the Pennington County Sheriff's Office wrote in their police reports. Sovereign citizens are known to believe in various conspiracy theories, but their main tenet is that people are sovereign from the U.S., and therefore don't have to follow laws, pay taxes or answer to government authorities. 

During an interview with a deputy, the reports say, Kopecky said the U.S. Treasury needs to certify his city water bill as a "true bill" and offset the cost since he only uses silver dollars. 

Kopecky also accused a deputy of conducting an "unlawful citizens arrest" in a letter to the city, the reports say. "Law is supreme, it never yields to some man-made code, statute or any other private rule," he wrote.  

Court records show that instead of signing his name on the document, he wrote "under duress" so it read "signed under duress."

Speaking outside the courthouse Tuesday, Kopecky and Koch said they're not sovereign citizens and disagree with the movement.

Koch called followers of the movement "cop killers" and recommended the writings of Anna von Reitz, a self-proclaimed judge and conspiracy theorist who is popular in the movement, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that analyzes extremist and hate groups.

Kopecky said he identifies as an "American state national" and that state court doesn't have jurisdiction over him. He said the American Bar Association actually stands for British Accredited Registry and has registered all Americans as property of the queen of England.

The New Underwood City Council voted to ask for criminal charges against Kopecky because "all other means of trying to contact him to make payments (were not working out), and it got to the point where he was just stealing water," Mayor Jack Trullinger said Tuesday in a phone interview. 

Kopecky was also making city staff feel uncomfortable, he added.

Kopecky's water was initially shut off in December 2017 for non-payment, the police reports say. After it appeared that Kopecky turned the water back on by himself, the city put a padlock on the pipe leading to the valve. However, the city later learned that Kopecky was watering his yard and after digging there found that the pipe had been cut. The city claims the pipe was cut a second time as well. 

But Kopecky said after Tuesday's hearing that he has paid the water bills. Koch said she hasn't lived in the house for two years so she's not sure why she was charged. 

If found guilty, the pair could serve up to two years in prison for the grand theft charges. Kopecky faces up to another five years for refusing to provide a DNA sample. 

New Underwood, however, only wants what is owed to the city, according to the mayor.

"We're not looking for him to go to jail," Trullinger said. "We just want our bill paid."

The FBI considers the sovereign citizens movement a domestic terror threat since some followers have committed financial crimes and threatened or killed police officers and other government workers. 

An estimated 300,000 Americans are part of the movement and many with sovereign citizens beliefs reject the label and instead call themselves state nationals, according to a profile of the group by the SPLC. 

— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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