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Pay Your Taxes: A Cautionary Tale

For most of the country, it’s Tax Day. It’s not Tax Day in Massachusetts because we are special, so we have until Wednesday at midnight to file. This is not because we host the greatest road race in the world today even though we do. It is because we – unlike the heathens in most of the rest of the nation – take a whole day to remember and praise the great patriots who fought in the first battle of the Revolutionary War. The one if by land and two if by sea great ride of William Dawes (and also Paul Revere). The scrappy men and boys (and the women who loved them) in Lexington and Concord who fired the shot heard round the world. Big shout out here to the great Americans celebrating union and liberty along with us in Maine, Connecticut, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and …wait for it…Florida!?!) Wishing you all a joyous Patriot’s Day! Note: this is not a gift-giving holiday and there are no traditional Patriot’s Day meals or treats. It’s just a day off in the state in order to remember our roots and also boost spectators for the Marathon as well as an opportunity for a few more days to file your income tax returns here in Massachusetts and maybe those other states – I did not bother to look that part up.

But this is about Tax Day – specifically a reminder that even if you do not like anything about the government and believe that the 16th Amendment is a whole lot of hooey – it is way, way better to file your taxes and pay whatever you owe than not to. Oh sure, there’s Al Capone and Leona Helmsley and Heidi Fleiss and Willie Nelson all of whom could exemplify the shame and real suffering to those who fail to pay taxes. But, this is not about any of them. This is about a couple in New Hampshire who misunderstood the state motto – it’s Live Free or Die not Live for Free and Lie. Common mistake. Let’s meet them!

Elaine Brown was an upstanding member of the community and a dentist. Then she met Edward Brown. Folks – if you take away nothing else, always remember that if anyone tries to isolate you from your family and friends, leech off of your income, and this is a big one – indulges in conspiracy theories – run. Instead, Elaine leaned in. The Browns stopped paying income taxes in 1996 and stopped filing their taxes at all in 1998. About a decade into this, the feds caught on. The couple was indicted on tax evasion charges in 2006. They owed about $625k (roughly $930k today). Rather than work out a deal, they went to trial representing themselves on the theory that there was no law that required them to pay taxes. This was problematic because there were a number of laws that actually did so require, all of which were explained to the jury who found them guilty of a number of crimes.

But, the Browns were not there for the verdict because they just stopped attending the trial partway through it. They were sentenced to 5 years each in absentia.

Edward Brown was – and I imagine he still is – a militant anti-government militia guy who harbors ideas about the world that are not at all based in reality. However, he was examined and found to be competent (the bar is, admittedly, quite low).  His anti-Semitic perspective is that there is a deliberate plot by “Zionist Illuminati Freemasons” – what exactly that plot was remains murky. But he was sure that Freemasons and the elusive Illuminati but mostly Jews were at the foundation of all problems.

Anti-Semitic Screed rabbit hole: For literally thousands of years, Jews have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong and nothing that has gone right in the world. It is a bizarre and tired trope. More than that, it is dangerous. There has been an extremely uncomfortable increase in hate crimes over the last several years and no group has suffered more in this regard than Jewish people. This is objectively horrible. I have no idea how to end these hate crimes, but if anyone does, please implement it.

Anyway, whatever the plot was, it appears that Edward Brown was having none of it – he did nothing wrong; he had no intention of going to jail. So, he holed up, well armed, with stocks of food on his property. Elaine had been staying with an adult child in Massachusetts on an ankle bracelet which she broke and fled to her marital home in New Hampshire to be with Edward riding out this frivolous storm of doom. Their only laws were the ones in the Bible. They welcomed supporters to join them at their home. They held off the feds, essentially in a standoff, for 9 months.

Their arrest and surrender to the sentences was poetic, though. Because they routinely welcomed supporters, some federal agents posed as supporters and were welcomed into the home where they promptly executed outstanding warrants and took them both into custody without a fight. The state and federal governments had begun forfeiture proceedings in order to be paid for back taxes.  The Browns started serving their 5 year terms. But, that was not the end of the story.

The couple was then indicted for crimes related to the standoff including, among other offenses, weapons charges, obstructing justice, and failure to appear for sentencing. They were both convicted of multiple offenses. They got walloped. Elaine was sentenced to 35 years and Edward to 37. This was all because Edward Brown made up some story that the federal government had no power over him – he was not going to file or pay taxes (well, ultimately I suppose he got his wish – not the power over him part, just the not required to pay taxes part). To this day, Brown cannot understand why he is in prison.

Elaine, on the other hand, has seen the light. She used her carceral time as many, many inmates do, to understand how her offenses hurt other people, to improve her knowledge base, and to grow as a person. In that work, she sent a letter of remorse to her local newspaper from prison. She filed for divorce. She expressed enormous regret. There was a Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Davis, 139 S.Ct. 2319 (2019) that opened the door for the Browns to argue for resentencing. Elaine brought her argument to Judge Singal who reduced her term to time served (which amounted to about 12 years of incarceration). I doubt she went back to practicing dentistry since she was released. But, I imagine that no matter what she is doing, around this time of year she is filing her taxes and paying what she owes.

Edward also had his term reduced, but not by as much time. His was reduced from 37 years to 25 years and he is still incarcerated.

Patriot’s Day makes us think about those first early days of revolution and the long battles to follow and then a terrifying, but exciting, experiment first with Articles of Confederation and, when that failed, the Constitution we still use today. Patriot’s Day is less about the musket fire and more about the ideals that would emerge from the opportunity to self- govern. Self-governing is messy; along with some of our great decisions, we have made countless mistakes as a nation. Maybe we can think about Patriot’s Day as the celebration of second chances. This is equally true for Americans like Elaine who made some bad choices, realized the error of her ways, and took advantage of the opportunity to again be an upstanding citizen, and for all of us.

Some years ago, Barney Frank quipped that government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together. For this, we all chip in a little. So, as we ponder the kind of nation we dream of being this Patriot's Day, make sure that at some point before midnight (unless you are in Massachusetts which gives you a few more days), you file and pay your taxes.



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