LARGO — In his eight years as a circuit judge, Thomas Minkoff has handled family and civil cases, as well as 14,000 foreclosure hearings.
He was in court once again on Tuesday, but not in his usual perch at the bench. This time, he was on the witness stand.
Minkoff testified in the trial of a Clearwater woman charged with filing fraudulent documents against the Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge after he presided over her foreclosure.
The charges against Leslie Armstrong, 60, are seldom seen: Two counts of criminal use through simulated legal process and two counts of criminal use under color of law.
It took the jury an hour to find her guilty of all counts.
Minkoff was the victim in a case highlighting an increasingly common form of retaliation against public officials: They are the targets of fraudulent liens filed against them that can harm their reputations and credit scores.
It’s a tactic frequently employed by the sovereign citizens movement, whose adherents believe the law doesn’t apply to them.
Armstrong’s defense attorney, John Trevena, told jurors his client didn’t intend to commit a crime when she filed the liens. She was just desperate to save her home and searched for relief on the Internet.
"How ridiculous is this prosecution? How ridiculous can you get?" Trevena told jurors during closing arguments. "We’re going to charge a 60-year-old grandmother with four counts of these charges because she’s filed something in her foreclosure that might have hurt Judge Minkoff’s feelings."
He shared a few more details with the Tampa Bay Times. He said Armstrong and her husband are wetlands scientists. She was coping with Lupus when she filed the liens in 2015. Her granddaughter was also ill at the time and later died. And Trevena said his client is not a sovereign citizen.
Assistant State Attorney Adam Ross told jurors the facts are "very simple."
In 2013, Armstrong and her husband’s Clearwater home at 3155 Hyde Park Drive was under foreclosure. Minkoff presided over the case, and in September 2015 found for the lender, sending the couple’s home into foreclosure.
That’s when the state said Armstrong began filing a paper trail of unusual documents depicting a flying eagle and titled in bold, capital letters with the words "CRIMINAL COMPLAINT" into Pinellas County official records.
The judge and the bank, Armstrong wrote, violated "U.S. constitutional laws." Among them: "No law-abiding person shall be forced to do anything he does not want to do" and "No controlling agency shall harass a U.S. citizen." That’s language commonly associated with the sovereign citizens movement.
Armstrong also filed liens against the judge, calculating that he owed them more than $13 million.
Nothing she claimed in those records was true, Ross said. When a detective asked Armstrong why she filed them, she said the judge "had really stuck it to us."
In his testimony, Minkoff navigated the complex legalese of foreclosure law to explain to the jury the significance of Armstrong’s filings. During her foreclosure, the judge said, Armstrong chose to represent herself.
Days later after Minkoff’s ruling, he realized that Armstrong was filing liens against him and alerted the general counsel’s office at the Pinellas-Pasco judicial circuit, which is the group of judges who oversee both counties.
Minkoff also filed a lawsuit that authorized the Pinellas Clerk of the Circuit Court to remove the documents.
"Once you see that somebody files documents that has numbers on them, that uses words like ‘affidavit,’ ‘secure,’ ‘not satisfied,’ ‘immediately collectable,’ eventually you become concerned," the judge said. "I had never seen documents like that. I’ve had eight years on the bench and I’ve never heard of it."
Armstrong has no prior criminal record in Florida, records show. Each charge carries a maximum of five years in prison. She was taken into custody and is set to be sentenced on Feb. 23.
"What this case has shown if anything is that she doesn’t think the rules apply to her," Ross said.
Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.