An Emigrant man who proclaimed himself "pontiff of the Sovereign Church of Christ" said the laws of United States don't apply to him because he hasn't signed a contract with the government.

But a federal jury decided Wednesday that Love Thomas Wright Cooper was a felon who illegally possessed two 9mm handguns after Park County officers arrested him during a traffic stop last year.

The jury deliberated only 45 minutes before finding Cooper guilty of being a felon in possession of firearms.  

Cooper, 33, represented himself during the two-day trial. By choice, he wore a navy blue jail uniform. Cooper held up a small Bible he said was his law book. He identified himself as "Love Thomas Wright of the family Cooper."

Admitting he was "winging it" in his closing statement, Cooper called the case frivolous and said his rights were violated. "When did my acts become subject to government approval?" he asked.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Whittaker called the case simple.

Testimony from Park County sheriff's deputies and other law enforcement officers showed that Cooper was arrested  March 6 after a traffic stop in which Cooper was going 80 mph in a 65 mph nighttime zone. Cooper's license plate read "SSC Pontiff."

Officers found a loaded 9mm handgun in a holster on Cooper's hip and another 9mm handgun on the floor on the passenger side of the back seat. A background check found that Cooper had been convicted of felony unlawful wounding in Virginia in 2000 and was given a five-year suspended sentence.

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Whittaker also played a video recording of portions of the stop. On the ride to jail, Cooper apologized for not telling the deputy about the gun in his holster.

"He knew what he had on him," he said.

Cooper testified in his own defense and tried unsuccessfully to take the Fifth Amendment when Whittaker asked him about the guns. Cooper said the guns were the possessions of the Sovereign Church of Christ and that he was a trustee.

"I'm not liable for things of the Sovereign Church of Christ," he said.

The SCC's website said it was not governed by any state or federal constitutions and its citizens were "born free and natural on the lands known to many as: Continental America."

State charges against Cooper will proceed when the federal case is finished, said Park County Attorney Brett Linneweber. Cooper faces two felonies — theft of the truck and possession of  marijuana — and six misdemeanors. The misdemeanors include carrying a concealed weapon, obstruction of a peace officer, operating a vehicle without a license plate, speeding, no insurance and driving while his license was suspended or revoked.

Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom set sentencing for May 25. Cooper faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine. Cooper remains in custody.

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Contact Clair Johnson at cjohnson@billingsgazette.com or 657-1282.