Post Date: December 17, 2013
Donald Millner is 81-years-old. His wife (who’s 84) owns a house with her son in Lake County, Florida. In January of last year, squatters broke into the house and began living there. They caused about $1,500 worth of damage to the property, and Mr. Millner was afraid they were going to burn it down (the utilities were turned off and the squatters had messed with some wires). Millner and his wife called the police, but were told they couldn’t do anything about it, and that if Mr. Millner wanted the squatters gone he’d have to evict them. Mr. Millner said he didn’t know how to evict someone who had broken into the home and living there illegally. So he and his wife went to the house and told the squatters that they would be back on a certain date, and that they needed to have moved out by that date. On January 23, 2012, after city police told him it was safe to return to the home (they’d called a few times and police advised against visiting the property), Mr. Millner and his wife went back to the house. The squatters were still there.
Mr. Millner told them to gather their things and leave. He said he was going to fix a mailbox, and when he was finished they needed to be gone. When he came back, a man who Mr. Millner hadn’t yet seen – he was 23-years-old and about 6’2″ – was leaning against Millner’s truck. He told Millner that he couldn’t make them leave, and he had no right to make them leave. Per Millner’s account, the other man got aggressive, and his tone and mannerisms made Millner feel like he might hurt Millner or his wife (who was on the other side of the truck). Millner reached into his truck for his revolver (for which he had a valid concealed carry permit). He never took it from his holster (a strap was over the hammer and the trigger was covered). Instead, he kept it by his side and said, “If you don’t back off, you’re going to get hurt.” (Millner told me, “If I were 20 years younger I wouldn’t have needed the gun, but at my age there was no way I could defend myself without it.”) He asked his wife to call the police, and she did. When the police arrived, they questioned everyone.
Then officers from the Lake Mary Police Department told Mr. Millner to put his hands behind his back. They took him to jail and charged him with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Later, Mr. Millner received a letter from the State Attorney’s office for Florida’s Fifth Circuit (Brad King, State Attorney) explaining that Millner was being formally charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and that he faced a three-year mandatory minimum, and could face up to 20 years. (Millner said that he’d never been so scared in his life. He had never been arrested before.) Millner described the prosecuting attorney – Elizabeth Purdy, who is still prosecuting cases for the State – as a “hyper-aggressive prosecutor who didn’t care about the truth, but was hellbent on putting me in jail.” Millner wasn’t sure if the State offered him a plea deal, but he said he would not have accepted one because he knew he’d done nothing wrong.
Fortunately, after an immunity hearing in November 2012, a judge dismissed the case against Mr. Millner. The State appealed, but later voluntarily dismissed the appeal. Mr. Millner no longer faces criminal liability for defending himself. But it still cost him $10,000 in attorney’s fees (and bond) and he spent nearly a year of his life with the prospect of prison hanging over his head because a prosecutor decided an 80-year-old man wasn’t within his rights to defend himself against a 23-year-old squatter whom he felt might hurt him or his wife.
The Threatened Use of Force Act is intended to protect law-abiding citizens like Mr. Millner – who threaten the use of force in response to a perceived threat to their safety – from malicious prosecution. His story is exactly why Florida needs to pass this good bill and put the law back on the side of victims, not criminals.
One more important note. Mr. Millner was fortunate to have a judge who understood the case and dismissed it. Another judge might not have. And in that case, Mr. Millner almost certainly would have “rolled the dice” at trial. And because reasonable people disagree on self-defense, one jury might have acquitted him, but a different jury might have convicted him. And if Mr. Millner had been convicted – i.e., if the State Attorney’s office of Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit had its way – a judge would have had no option but to sentence Mr. Millner to three years in prison under 10-20-Life. That is monstrous and indefensible, but it is nonetheless Florida law. And it’s why, in addition to criminal immunity for the threatened use of force, we desperately need sentencing discretion in self-defense cases.
~ Greg Newburn, FAMM Florida Project Director
CORRECTION: In the post above I write that Mr. Millner was arrested by the “Lake Mary Police Department.” Millner was actually arrested by the Lady Lake Police Department in Lake County. I regret the error.