Victor Victorious

Cussed out and arrested by a Miami Beach cop, Victor Van Gilst gets his day in court -- and prevails

Victor Van Gilst appeared in Dade County Court this past November 30 to answer charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing an emergency vehicle. But he never actually had to answer; the arresting officer got the case thrown out for him.

Last October, Van Gilst, a native of the Netherlands who has been living in Miami Beach for several years and who works as a tour guide, related to New Times his hostile encounter with and subsequent arrest by Guillermo Berrier, a Miami Beach police officer ("Finally, a Solution to the South Beach Parking Problem!" October 19, 1995). Now, after his victory in court, Van Gilst is seeking compensation from the City of Miami Beach.

Van Gilst and a witness say an enraged Berrier yelled obscenities at them after their car almost collided with the officer's on Collins Avenue on September 24. Van Gilst asserts the officer insulted and cursed him, at one point inquiring, "Are you a fucking tourist?" and eventually arrested him after he protested the traffic ticket Berrier wrote. The officer related a different story on the arrest form, noting that besides acting threatening and violent after Berrier handed him the ticket, Van Gilst was the one yelling obscenities. Vowing to win vindication in court, Van Gilst also lodged an Internal Affairs complaint against Berrier. The IA investigation has not been concluded.

The two antagonists faced off two months later in the Miami Beach branch of the county courthouse. Van Gilst came with his lawyer, Charles Chassen, while the State Attorney's Office dispatched Assistant State Attorney Christina Playton to make its case against the Dutchman. Berrier testified for the state. Judge Scott J. Silverman presided. The IA investigator showed up to watch.

Berrier, a five-year veteran of the force, said he had been attempting to make his way through Saturday night traffic on Collins Avenue with a drunken, handcuffed prisoner in the back seat of his patrol car, trying to get to the jail as soon as possible. Emergency lights flashing and horn blaring, he began to cut across the northbound lane to head south. All the cars stopped for him, he testified, except Van Gilst's LeBaron convertible. Slamming on his brakes, Berrier got out of his squad car to write Van Gilst a ticket for obstructing an emergency vehicle.

This is the point at which Van Gilst and his passenger, Pamela Thompson, contend an agitated Berrier approached them spewing imprecations.

Berrier, however, remembered Van Gilst jumping out of his car and striding toward him, "screaming obscenities at me . . . waving his arms in a very hostile manner. . . . As he kept approaching me, I had to keep backing up, away from him." Not only was Van Gilst outraged by the traffic ticket, the officer told Judge Silverman, he actually dared the cop to arrest him. "So I did."

Van Gilst was added to Berrier's jailbound cargo and later booked for disorderly conduct. He was released from jail the next day.

Chassen asked Berrier how pressing his emergency could have been, considering that he had time to stop, run a check on Van Gilst's driver's license, inspect his insurance papers, and write him a ticket. Berrier insisted that it was Van Gilst's obligation to stop for a car with red and blue lights flashing and that it was his obligation as a police officer to cite him for failing to do so. "I am viewed as an emergency vehicle for having my lights on," Berrier testified.

Judge Silverman disagreed. He dismissed the citation, observing, "The Court is not convinced it was, in fact, at that point in time, an emergency."

As for the disorderly conduct charge, a criminal misdemeanor, Berrier had made a little mistake on the arrest report, which precluded the prosecution before it even got under way. "The A-form does not say anything about Dade County," Chassen pointed out. "It does not even say the State of Florida. . . . 'Arrest location 1600 block and Collins Avenue,' nothing else."

In other words, the state had not proved the most elementary piece of its case, that the court had jurisdiction. "That is a significant and serious defect in the arrest form," Silverman declared, ordering an acquittal.

Van Gilst, who says his twelve hours in jail caused him to miss a boatload of tourists he had been scheduled to pick up at the Port of Miami, and consequently to lose an important client, has hired Miami attorney John Fuller to seek compensation from the City of Miami Beach. Although the city hasn't yet been served with a notice of his lawsuit, Van Gilst says he's going to meet with city officials within the next several days. The city's usual initial response to prospective claims is to investigate to determine their legal merit. Van Gilst, still indignant, predicts, "I think they will want to settle out of court, because they violated my civil rights.

 
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