BISBEE — A Huachuca City man acted in self-defense when he used physical force to tackle a trespassing neighbor to the ground more than two years ago, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Judge Wallace Hoggatt stated in his decision that Richard Allen Miller clearly assaulted neighbor Darren Leonard on Oct. 24, 2016. However, he found the Cochise County Attorney’s Office failed to prove during a four-day trial that Miller’s actions weren’t justified, even though the neighbor suffered a broken collarbone.
Miller, 40, faced several years in prison if convicted of aggravated assault, a Class 4 felony. He contended he used physical force only in an effort to protect himself and girlfriend Katrina Sutton.
Leonard testified he knew Miller and Sutton didn’t want him at the house, but denied posing a threat to the couple. He described to the judge how he walked down a back alley, and ignoring a no-trespassing sign, he entered Miller’s fenced property and approached the back door.
According to Miller’s testimony, Leonard was holding something metallic-like when he appeared uninvited outside Miller’s back door. Miller then confronted Leonard, pushing him to the ground.
Beyond tackling Leonard, Miller didn’t undertake any other use of physical force, a point noted by Hoggatt in his ruling.
The judge also heard testimony from Miller and Sutton during the trial about their contacts with the Huachuca City Police Department about their concerns with Leonard’s activities. In his ruling, he said he took into consideration the credibility of the five witnesses, which included Leonard, Miller and Sutton, as well as Huachuca City Police Chief Jim Thies and Huachuca City officer Christopher Thompson.
Miller’s trial attorney, A. Melvin McDonald, is a former U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona and former Maricopa County Superior Court judge. He told the Herald/Review that Miller should not have been charged.
“There was so much that had happened beforehand, including months of harassments, yelling and vulgarities, and other trespassing,” McDonald said. “This case was brought at a great cost for Mr. Miller.”
State law allows a person to threaten or use physical force against another person to the extent reasonably necessary to protect oneself or others. However, a self-defense claim doesn’t preclude the filing of criminal charges.
Hoggatt ruled earlier this year that once the county attorney filed the aggravated assault charge a trial was needed to determine whether Miller’s use of force was justified under the circumstances. The parties agreed to bypass a jury trial in favor of a bench trial in which Hoggatt would decide whether Miller was guilty or not.
In reflecting on the verdict, prosecutor Michael Powell said he and co-prosecutor Rachel Raines accept the judge’s decision,
“In a case involving a claim of self-defense, the burden is on the state to prove both that the assault occurred and that it was not justified,” he said. “The judge determined that the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravated assault occurred, but not beyond a reasonable doubt that the action wasn’t justified.”
Powell told the Herald/Review it’s his duty “not simply to win, but rather to seek justice. In this case, given the judge’s findings, that outcome was achieved.”
After the October 2016 incident, Miller and Sutton obtained court-ordered injunctions against harassment that were served on Leonard.
A judge subsequently ruled Leonard violated the court orders and fined him nearly $4,000, according to McDonald.