Revealing Look at How Flagler Beach Commission, in Closed-Door Meeting, Settled Wrongful Arrest Claim
FlaglerLive | March 9, 2017
A divided Flagler Beach City Commission agreed to a $6,000 settlement in a wrongful arrest lawsuit Vassili Mironov filed in 2015 following his arrest three years ago after a fight at Finns bar in Flagler Beach. Mironov had initially asked for $89,000.
The commission agreed to the settlement in a closed-door session in January, the substance of which was disclosed this week in a transcript that revealed in detail how and what leads city officials to settle a case. City attorney Drew Smith recommended settling the case for $6,000 because continuing it would cost between $20,000 to $30,000 in legal fees alone. And the city’s insurer had approved the settlement. Until then, very little had been spent on the case, which had just gone into early mediation.
Mironov’s case had drawn attention three years ago because his arrest, along with that of his friends Roman Dubinschi and Joshua Auriemma on similar charges, had followed by days their sudden status as heroes: they were the trio that had foiled what could have been a mass shooting at European Village when Daniel Noble, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran with whom they’d had words earlier (they’d asked him to leave), turned up at Europa Lounge looking like Rambo, as he was described in court papers, and with an Uzi assault rifle and two hunting knives.
After initially facing an attempted murder charge, Noble pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated battery and a count of aggravated assault in December. He faces between eight and 35 years in prison when he’s sentenced in May.
The arrests at Finns were the result of a fight that was not captured on video. The charges had relied on one witness’ account, and Mironov denied all along that he’d instigated the fight. The charges against him and his friends were dropped. And Mironov sued both the Flagler Beach Police Department and Europa Lounge. He charged Europa with “negligent security.” He dropped that lawsuit on Feb. 10.
The complaint against the Flagler Beach Police Department charged false arrest and imprisonment. Mironov was represented by Matthew Maguire and Dennis Bayer, the Flagler Beach attorneys. (Mironov in December 2013 had faced a felony charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and a battery charge after he was accused of attacking another man at European Village from behind. The charges were dropped the following June.)
The city commission knew little to nothing about the case when it met in secret, as the law permits when discussing pending litigation, to decide the case.
“I’m sorry, I know nothing about this,” Jane Mealy. Who chairs the commission, told Drew Smith, the city attorney, at the beginning of the closed-door meeting. Commissioner Marshall Shupe complained about not having received any prior information, though he remembered Mironov being one of the “good guys” in the European Village incident. Commissioner Rick Belhumeur was also displeased with having no information before the secret meeting. “So that’s typically how this works then, huh? We don’t know anything,” he said. He had been elected a year earlier.
Smith, the city attorney, filled in the commission. He said the state attorney ultimately “did not pursue anything on” the case (the state attorney had, in fact, filed charges, and a plea was scheduled two weeks before the state attorney dropped the charges.) “And it always puts the jurisdictions in a hard spot when the state attorney doesn’t prosecute,” Smith continued, “because that immediately raises the – well, if they didn’t prosecute, then why did you arrest me in the first place? That’s not how it works, but that’s what they argued.” But in laying out the case, Smith conceded that the case against Mironov was weak to non-existent. What video existed, from inside of Finns, showed that Mironov was not involved.
In the end, Smith called it a good “economic settlement” for the city.
Commissioner Joy McGrew worried about “opening a can of worms” for any future such arrests, though Smith said the settlement would not be precedent-setting. “The only concern—it’s a constant concern whenever you’re dealing with these kinds of claims is, does it encourage others?” Smith said, apparently not concerned about the equally real possibility that Mironov was, in fact, wrongfully arrested—and that it is such false arrests that these legal actions combat, and that the city itself should be ensuring that its cops don’t carry out.
Whether Mironov was treated fairly or not, whether he was wrongfully arrested or not, was not part of the attorney’s or the commission’s discussion. The approach was more candidly cynical. “You know, everybody knows,” Smith said, “whether it’s a city of a corporation, everybody knows when, you know, if you can make it expensive enough to defend a claim, it’s cheaper to settle. And I don’t think we’re doing anything to cause more of that, just because I think there is already a certain level of it just in the public already.”
“On principle,” McGrew said, “I don’t want to, but in light of the city, I would say settle.”
“I don’t think it’s my job to decide if the police did right, wrong or indifferent,” Commissioner Kim Carney said. “I think we’re being asked as a body to negotiate and settle for the benefit of the city. I don’t—I wouldn’t want to get into the details of the case, because in this case you’re bringing forth a settlement that seems very reasonable.” She added, “So, you know, we are not getting any mud on our face. And I surely wouldn’t want to look through a case docket, you know, 40-40 pages long, whatever depositions, or whatever you did to get to where you got.”
Mealy agreed, saying “it’s not up to us to decide if the police do their job right or not. We’re not police officers, we don’t know how incidents should be handled.”
Belhumeur asked about feedback from the police chief.
“Nobody did anything wrong,” Smith said. “I’m not just saying it because that’s our position in the litigation. Our position is nobody did anything wrong, this was not a wrongful arrest. And I’m not sitting here telling you that it was. There was a witness that said this is what happened. He based his arrest on that. That is appropriate for an officer to do.”
“Without even knowing what happened inside prior?” Mealy asked (though, in fact, what happened prior, inside, was known: it was on video, and Mironov was shown to have been uninvolved in the altercation, and had also been exonerated by the Finns bouncer.)
“The arrest was not based on what happened inside,” Smith said.
Smith is right in this regard: it happens all the time, as officers make arrests based on a single individual’s claims. Judgment and discretion play a bigger or lesser role, depending on the officer’s experience and temperament, but it isn’t the officer’s job to prove those claims or have them proven at the point of arrest.
“I find it odd that we fold for $6,000 so quickly,” Belhumeur said, though Carney asked him if he wanted to spend $30,000 to save $6,000.
The commissioners wondered if Mironov had an attorney and how he was paying the bills. “It’s a contingency,” Smith told them. “The attorney invests his time, but [Mironov] does not,” Smith said. “That’s one of the problems with this type of cases, the plaintiffs aren’t spending their own dollars.”
Carney at one point raised the possibility of calling Mironoiv’s bluff, but was dissuaded by the attorney. But as the closed-door session wore on, there was clear hesitancy from Belhumeur and Shupe about the case, with Shupe wondering what had led Mironov to sue, and asking questions about how this would affect Mironov personally—the mug shot on the web, his job prospects. “Well, the fact that his mug shot is out there, it’s out there and it’s never going to be taken back,” Shupe said, unaware that Mironov’s mug shot was already out there from the previous arrest. He also has a drunk driving charge, Smith told the commissioners, so he may not expunge his record. But it did not appear as if Shupe was in favor of the settlement.
“So this $4,800 is going to make him happy?” Shupe asked.
“$6,000,” Smith said.
“Well,” Shupe said, “he’s got to pay his attorney the 20 percent.”
“So he’s going to get $4,800 out of this if he’s lucky.”
Carney reminded Shupe that the city’s insurer would pay the sum, not city coffers directly, though the city pays premiums. “It ‘ s obviously a man thing, but it’s okay,” Carney said. “But the reality is, that ‘ s why we ‘ re insured.”
The session took 20 minutes. The commission then reopened its doors and voted 3-2, with Shupe and Belhumeur against, to approve the settlement.