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Laws change and this info may no longer be current.  To see if this is current, please consult an attorney or research the issue (Lake County residents click here for the law library's website).

Voters decided that the state, not counties, should pay for the court system.  The transition is creating an enormous upheaval.  New laws have passed in an attempt to make the court system more self-supporting.  One new law concerns mandatory costs.

I will use a first DUI, over a .20 breath alcohol and a child in the car, as an example.  A typical sentence would have been 12 months probation, a loss of driver’s license for 12 months, $600 fine, $150 costs, DUI school and any treatment recommended at the Defendant’s expense, Victim Awareness Program at the Defendant’s expense, 10 day vehicle immobilization at the Defendant’s expense, consume no alcohol and 10 days in jail.

Now it is suggested that the court impose a maximum sentence of $1,000 fine, $500 in costs, mandatory costs of $3.00 to the court cost trust fund, $50 to the crimes compensation trust fund, $50 to the local government criminal justice trust fund, $20 to crime stoppers trust fund, $2 additional criminal justice education by municipalities and counties, 5% surcharge, $135 DUI/BUI Assessment, $15 county alcohol and other drug abuse trust fund, prosecution or investigative costs, $45 per month for probation and, if the Defendant has the ability to pay, an amount equal to the fine for alcohol and drug abuse programs, $150 for court facilities and $50 per day served in jail.  And of course the other sanctions normally imposed.

Defendants argue that the public received no proper notice of these changes.  They argue that these charges should not be imposed upon people who do not have the ability to pay.  They argue that the costs are unjustly onerous.  They argue that the new law is not clear.  It is true that there is some confusion.  The Legislature is working on a “Glitch Bill” to solve those problems.  The Courts must interpret and apply the law as it now stands.

2. THE JUDGE RULES: Landlord/Tenant

Laws change and this info may no longer be current.  To see if this is current, please consult an attorney or research the issue (Lake County residents click here for the law library's website).

I see many landlord/tenant cases each week.  A landlord/tenant case starts with the landlord delivering a proper three-day notice to the tenant.  The tenant must pay the rent within three days, not counting weekends and holidays, or must vacate.

If the tenant does not pay or vacate, the landlord can file the eviction case with the court.  Paperwork will be sent to the tenant informing the tenant that he or she has five days to file an answer and to put the rent owed into the court registry.  Usually if there is no answer and no money placed in the registry within five days, the court will sign the paperwork evicting the tenant.  The landlord takes the paperwork and $70 to the Sheriff who will make arrangements to physically remove the tenant if necessary.

If tenant puts the rent due into the court registry and files an answer, a hearing will be set.  Tenants often complain that the landlord has not taken proper care of the property.  Rent cannot be withheld for that reason unless the tenant puts the complaint in writing before withholding the rent.  Sometimes the tenant answers that he has fixed up the place and should get rent credit for work done or items bought.  That is not the way it works unless the landlord has agreed to have it work that way.

The tenant often answers with the excuse of illness or loss of job for non-payment of rent.  The tenant will state that the children are in school and that the family needs more time.

The relationship between landlord and tenant is contractual.  It is a business relationship.  The landlord may choose to give the tenant another chance but it is not usually the court’s place to be generous with the landlord’s property.

3. THE JUDGE RULES: The Court Structure

Laws change and this info may no longer be current.  To see if this is current, please consult an attorney or research the issue (Lake County residents click here for the law library's website).

Many states have a different court structure than Florida.  In Florida our lower level trial court is County Court.  In Lake County we have two County Court Judges.  I am Judge Donna Miller and your other County Court Judge is Judge Richard Boylston.  We handle:

- Criminal cases for which a person could be sentenced up to a year in jail.  These are misdemeanors.

- Most traffic cases from DUI’s to parking tickets

- Civil cases up to $15,000, including small claims and landlord/tenant

- Simplified divorces

The next level is Circuit Court.  Lake County has seven Circuit Court judges: Judge Don Briggs, Judge Mark Hill, Judge Michael Johnson, Judge William Law, Judge Willard Pope, Judge Lawrence Semento, and Judge Richard Singeltary.  Circuit Court judges handle:

- Criminal cases for which a person could be sentenced to more than a year in jail.  These are felonies.

- Civil cases involving more than $15,000

- Injunctions

- Probate

- Divorces, child support, custody

- Juveniles

- Dependency

- Appeals from County Court

The District Court of Appeals hears appeals from Circuit Court.  The District Court of Appeals for Lake County is located in Daytona Beach.  We are in the Fifth District.

An appeal of the District Court of Appeals decision would go to the Florida Supreme Court.

Many cases are brought before me involving damages less than $15,000 but the interest and attorney’s fees bring the total over $15,000.  A party argues that the case should be heard in Circuit Court because the amount is over $15,000.

Judge Miller Rules: Attorney’s fees and interest are not calculated into the $15,000 limit.  The case stays in County Court.


4. THE JUDGE RULES: Appointed vs. Elected

Laws change and this info may no longer be current.  To see if this is current, please consult an attorney or research the issue (Lake County residents click here for the law library's website).

The voters decided that trial judges in Florida should be elected instead of appointed.  In reality most trial judges are appointed because vacancies arise between election cycles.  When there is such a vacancy, a nominating committee holds interviews with interested applicants.  The committee narrows the list to about three and sends it on to the Governor to make the final selection.  Lake County has seven judges who were appointed and two who were elected to their current positions.  Lake County has six male judges and one female.  All Lake County judges have chambers in the courthouse in Tavares.  All trial judges have six-year terms.

While there is no perfect method for selecting judges, we must maintain a system which fosters the independence of the judiciary.  Do you want a judge who makes decisions based on what is popular, what may help come election time or makes decisions based on the law and fairness as he or she understands it?  In America we are proud to be a country ruled by laws not people.  We must preserve that fundamental element of freedom.

Every judge in Lake County was trained in the law prior to taking the bench.  After taking the bench training continues.  Every judge in Lake County takes courses every year.  We attend training sessions and special interest conferences.  We read volumes of educational material sent to us each week.  We each have a great deal of courtroom experience.  Judge Miller and Judge Boylston each handle about 4,000 cases a year.  That makes your county judges the eighth busiest county judges in the state.

Some of those 8,000 cases will ask for continuances.  A party will want more time to prepare a case or more time to prepare for anticipated consequences.

Judge Miller Rules: While each request will be reviewed on its merits, few continuances are granted unless there is an emergency or a very special circumstance.  The only way I can offer all citizens the opportunity to be heard in a timely manner is to keep everyone on schedule.



Laws change and this info may no longer be current.  To see if this is current, please consult an attorney or research the issue (Lake County residents click here for the law library's website).

Some of the more recently implemented laws seem to be well kept secrets.  I will share some of them with you.

When an emergency vehicle is on the side of the road you are required to change lanes if possible or slow down 20 mph below the speed limit.  This is often difficult on heavily trafficked major highways.  Be careful, do your best using common sense.

It is a first degree misdemeanor of Cyberstalking to engage in a course of conduct to communicate, or to cause to be communicated, words, images, or language by or through the use of e-mail or electronic communication, directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress to that person and serving no legitimate purpose.  Do not harass people.

It is a third degree felony to willfully, maliciously and repeatedly cyberstalk and make a credible threat with intent to place a person in reasonable fear of death or bodily injury of the person, the person’s child, sibling, spouse, parent, or dependent;

OR to willfully, maliciously and repeatedly cyberstalk after issuance of any injunction or court order prohibiting conduct toward that person or that person’s property;

OR to willfully, maliciously and repeatedly cyberstalk a person under 16 years of age.

If you have a legitimate need to file an Emergency Injunction for Protection you will no longer have to worry about paying the filing fee.

On the other hand, if you have a criminal charge and cannot afford your own attorney and the Public Defender is appointed to represent you, you will be charged.  There is a $40 application fee and usually a $200 attorney fee.


6. THE JUDGE RULES: Small Claims

Laws change and this info may no longer be current.  To see if this is current, please consult an attorney or research the issue (Lake County residents click here for the law library's website).

Small Claims Court is designed to be accessible to non-attorneys as well as attorneys.  The amount of damages in question is limited to $5,000.  If you think you have a claim and you think you might want to handle it yourself educate yourself on the procedure.

Small Claims Court is for actual damages.  It is not a court which deals with equity issues.  If you have actual damages, you must be able to prove the damages and the value.  The party bringing the action has the burden of proof.  You must file all the appropriate paperwork and pay a filing fee.  You must be sure that the other side is properly served notice of the action.  In Lake County all Small Claims cases go to mediation before they go to a judge.  Lake County is very lucky to have an extraordinary group of volunteer mediators.  These volunteers have to go through training on their own time and most at their own expense.  They come to the courthouse week after week to help litigants work out their differences.  I am grateful to and proud of our mediators.  Their volunteer leader is Gil Fayerman.  Their track record is amazing.  They have a 70% resolution rate.  They save your county judges many hours each month.  They have helped us cope without a third county judge.

If the case is not settled in mediation it is usually set for a pre-trial conference in front of the judge.  The judge hears the outline of the case.  If the outcome is clear on its face, the judge can rule on the case without a trial or further hearing.  If facts are in dispute, the judge ascertains the issues, the number of witnesses and how long the trial should take and then sets a trial date.  In my courtroom the trial date is usually set about 30 days away.  A month gives litigants time to prepare but keeps the docket moving along.

At trial the judge cannot act as the attorney for either side.  The judge can explain certain procedures and courtroom behavior.  If no jury is present, the judge may ask questions.  The judge is the one who must decide the case.  The judge must understand the points the parties are trying to make.  Judges can interrupt when necessary but no one should interrupt the judge.  Parties must address everything to the court.  Parties cannot argue with each other.  The judge may find it necessary to warn parties about their behavior.  If warnings are ignored, parties could find themselves in the middle of a Contempt of Court proceeding.  Not a good thing!

Judges will attempt to rule at the end of all evidence presented.  Sometimes a judge will reserve ruling so that facts can be reviewed and issues of law researched and applied.  A ruling make take effect when orally pronounced or when the Order is signed.  Parties have ten days to ask for a re-hearing and thirty days to appeal.  An appeal would be filed with the Circuit Court.  A three-judge panel would review the case.

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