Suits filed over strip searches

Men name chief, city, 7 others and department as defendants.

By: Gina Barton, Journal Sentinel: July 11th, 2013

If two civil suits filed late Wednesday are successful, illegal rectal searches and strip searches by Milwaukee police could cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and legal bills.

The two civil suits, filed by five men in federal court, are likely the first of many to be filed by the 30 victims who came forward during a widespread criminal investigation that led to charges against four officers. The suits, which name the city, the Police Department, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn and seven individual department members as defendants, do not demand a specific damage amount.

A strip search case filed by a Beloit teenager that didn’t allege anal penetration or result in criminal charges against officers settled last year for $265,000.

Seven other people claiming to be victims of illegal searches primarily in the Milwaukee Police Department’s District 5 earlier filed notices of claim, which indicates they plan to file civil suits, although they have not yet done so.

The criminal charges against Milwaukee police officers Michael Vagnini, Jacob Knight, Jeffrey Dollhopf and Brian Kozelek are mentioned in the civil suits filed Wednesday and may increase the credibility of the plaintiffs, several of whom were found with drugs.

Vagnini last month was sentenced to 26 months in prison after pleading no contest to four felonies and four misdemeanors in connection with the searches. In 2011, his last full year on the force before the investigation began, Vagnini was paid more than $93,000 by the Police Department — nearly $30,000 of that in overtime.

Charges against the other three officers are pending.

Vagnini and Knight are named as defendants in the civil suits, as are Officer Michael Gasser and former Sgt. Jason Mucha, among others. Both Gasser and Mucha were cleared of wrongdoing by internal affairs. Mucha, who supervised some of the officers involved in the searches, has since left the force and is receiving duty disability payments.

Flynn has acknowledged the department had been receiving complaints for “a couple of years” before opening an investigation.

When the criminal charges were handed down in October, Flynn described the officers’ actions as “willful misconduct.”

“Crime cannot be fought with criminality,” he said then. “A hard-earned reputation has been tarnished.”

In addition to illegal search and seizure, the suits allege numerous other civil rights violations, including false arrest, excessive force and conspiracy. The suits detail numerous allegations of illegal searches, including:

  • A search of Leo Hardy on March 13, 2012. Gasser and his partner, Keith Garland Jr., stopped Hardy in front of his home. When Gasser reached into Hardy’s pants, Hardy “feared for his safety and ran.” The officers caught him and removed his pants and underwear on the street. Hardy did not have drugs. He was charged with resisting arrest and served 21 days in jail. When Hardy complained, internal affairs investigators tried to intimidate him. The internal investigation later cleared the officers.
  • A search of Jerold Ezell in February 2010. Ezell was sitting in his car, which was parked in front of his grandmother’s house. Mucha, Vagnini and Knight “approached his car with their weapons drawn.” Vagnini first ran his hands over Ezell’s scrotum and between his buttocks, then shone his flashlight down Ezell’s pants and “began to use his fingers to claw and attempt to penetrate Mr. Ezell’s anus.” Mucha and Knight watched and did not help Ezell. The complaint does not say whether drugs were found.
  • A search of a man identified only as L.L.R. on Feb. 27, 2010. Vagnini and Gasser stopped L.L.R.’s vehicle and asked him to turn over “the drugs.” When he did not, Vagnini put him in a chokehold and “violently probed LLR in his anus.” The complaint does not say whether drugs were found. Vagnini pleaded no contest to a crime involving this search and was convicted.
  • A search of Anthony Pettis in July 2011. Pettis and his friends were approached by two officers at a gas station in District 7. The officers brought Pettis to the station, where Vagnini arrived from District 5 and “shoved his fingers inside Mr. Pettis’ rectum,” the suit says. Pettis initially was charged with possession with intent to deliver cocaine, a felony with a maximum possible penalty of 15 years in prison. After his attorney filed a motion to suppress the evidence based on an illegal search, the district attorney’s office dropped the charge, saying the officers involved were unavailable to testify, his attorney said.
  • A search of both Ezell and Pettis in November 2011. The two men helped a friend carry her groceries into her house and she made them dinner. The same two officers who stopped Pettis in July knocked on the door, and the woman let them in. Vagnini, Knight and numerous other officers arrived. Vagnini “shoved his bare two fingers into both Mr. Ezell’s and Mr. Pettis’ rectums one after another without pausing to wash his hands or put on gloves.” No drugs were found.
  • A search of a man identified only as SC in spring 2012. He was confronted by a “train” of squad cars, one marked and two unmarked, in the alley behind his home. Vagnini and two other officers approached the car with their guns drawn. “Officer Vagnini then searched S.C., grabbing his testicles with his bare hands.” No drugs were found.

Both state law and Milwaukee Police Department policy prohibit police officers from doing a cavity search, which involves penetration, under any circumstances. Such searches can be performed only by a doctor, physician’s assistant or registered nurse.

Under state law, a strip search is defined as “a search in which a detained person’s genitals, pubic area, buttock or anus, or a detained female person’s breast, is uncovered and either is exposed to view or is touched by a person conducting the search.”

Before doing a strip search, an officer must get written permission from either the police chief or a supervisor — unless the officer expects to find a weapon. After the search, the officer is required to fill out a report that lists the names of the officers involved and the time and place of the search. The officer is required to give a copy of that report and of the written authorization to the detainee.

Whether drugs were found during an illegal search is irrelevant in a civil case.

The suits allege that Flynn “purposely ignored defendant officers’ pattern of misconduct.”

“Despite their knowledge of these illegal searches, the policymakers …took no action to train, supervise or discipline any officers who committed these knowingly illegal searches,” the plaintiffs allege. “Instead, certain of the defendant officers were rewarded with commendations for their aggressive police tactics and jobs well-done by their supervisors, including commendations from Chief Edward Flynn.”

At Vagnini’s sentencing hearing, his attorney, Michael Steinle, made the same point.

“Unfortunately, he wasn’t crossing his T’s and dotting his I’s. And I say then shame on other people, people that were supervising him,” Steinle said of Vagnini. “He’s a police officer. A smart one at that. But still he has people watching over his conduct. He has people reviewing his reports. He has lawyers reviewing his reports on both sides of it. And again, not one human being brought it up.”

Steinle provided Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Jeffrey A. Wagner with 40 letters of commendation received by his client, some of them signed by Flynn. Numerous people who worked with Vagnini at the department, including Mucha, wrote Wagner letters praising Vagnini’s police work and asking for leniency.

“I do not believe the allegations made against him and believe he only plead (sic) … due to pressure from the DA’s office, which was threatening him with so many charges he could have faced life in prison,” Mucha wrote. “I believe a good hard working officer is being punished for crimes he did not do just because they gave him no choice. … He did what his supervisors asked him to do and targeted certain violent drug dealers in the district.”


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