Man found with weapons after threat to his life avoids prison
A Co Antrim father-of-three who was caught in a car loaded with knifes and imitation firearms on Valentine's Day, has narrowly avoided being sent to prison.
Brian Henry Johnston, from Gullivers Lane in Ballynure, was handed a six-month sentence, which was suspended for two years, after a judge concluded there were "exceptional circumstances" linked to the incident.
Belfast Crown Court heard that whilst police were stopping and checking Johnston's car, he was approached by a group of men who tried to attack him.
Judge Patrick Kinney said he accepted Johnston had acquired the weapons for "defensive, not offensive" purposes, as the defendant was under threat at the time - but cited such offending as "grave."
At a previous hearing, a Crown prosecutor said that Johnston's car was stopped at Minorca Place in Carrickfergus at around noon on Saturday, February 14, after officers noticed the vehicle was being driven erratically.
As police were checking Johnston's driving documents, a group of men approached the car and started shouting abuse, such as "drug-dealing b******" and "dead man" to Johnston.
Three then tried to attack Johnston as he stood at the rear of his car, prompting him to flee on foot, with the would-be attackers giving chase.
The three were subsequently stopped and arrested, whilst Johnston was arrested on suspicion of firearms offences.
A search of Johnston's car resulted in a number of knifes and weapons being found.
They included an imitation firearm that resembled a Colt, an imitation air pistol and a large-bladed hunting knife.
The prosecutor said Johnston's offending occurred at a time when he was under threat, including a "very explicit threat", which appeared on the hoarding of a local bingo hall. During police interviews, Johnston handed officers a pre-prepared statement in which he detailed the threats to him and said they were linked to domestic issues involving an ex-partner. He also said he feared for his life.
Johnston later pleaded guilty to seven offences arising from the stop and search, including two counts of carrying an imitation firearm in public and three of possessing a knife in public.
Defence barrister Mark Farrell told the court the possession of the items was for "defensive purposes".
He said: "It is the case that he believed the only way to protect himself from violence or the threat of violence, was to pre-arm himself."
Mr Farrell also revealed: "These threats that were clearly very live and clearly very advertised - are no longer live. The people who sought to do him harm have desisted."
Passing sentence, Judge Kinney said he accepted Johnston's expressions of remorse and regret, and he also accepted that Johnston had displayed "some insight" into the consequences of his offending.
Judge Kinney also said he accepted "attacks by and threats from" others had resulted in a deterioration in Johnston's mental health.
The defendant was told by the judge: "There was a real threat to you, but that cannot be the justification for foolish, reckless and dangerous behaviour that led to you acquiring these weapons."
Johnston was handed a suspended sentence and warned to stay out of trouble for the next two years, or face being sent to jail.