Milwaukee Police Officer Michael Vagnini, one of eight department employees under investigation over potentially illegal strip searches in District 5, searched a suspect’s anal area for drugs in District 7 after he was called to assist officers there in July 2011, according to a police report obtained by the Journal Sentinel.
The defendant apparently knew the drill as well, turning around and bending over when Vagnini arrived, the report says.
“According to the report, Officer Vagnini had a reputation for doing this,” said defense attorney Alex Cossi, who handled the case. “This was not a rogue happenstance. This was a tacit acceptance of strip searches without proper procedures or supervision.”
The report shows that officers not involved in the questionable searches knew about them and that such searches occurred outside District 5, where the initial investigation began. The drug dealing charge against the man is the second to be thrown out in recent weeks amid allegations that the evidence was obtained illegally.
Neither Vagnini nor Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz responded to emailed requests for interviews.
Vagnini, six other officers and a supervisor were stripped of their badges and guns in March amid allegations they may have sexually assaulted people and violated their civil rights while conducting rectal searches for drugs. Milwaukee County prosecutors have launched a John Doe investigation, an inquiry in which prosecutors can compel testimony and subpoena documents without public knowledge. Simultaneously, the civilian Fire and Police Commission and the department’s internal affairs division are reviewing a list of complaints dating back a couple of years.
Federal officials are closely monitoring the process, as is the Milwaukee Common Council.
If the allegations are proved, officers could be criminally charged, the city could be on the hook for damages in civil suits, and more drug offenders could go free. That the district attorney’s office is conducting the John Doe also could pose a conflict of interest for prosecutors if they simultaneously pursue cases in which those officers are witnesses.
The Journal Sentinel is not identifying the man in Cossi’s case because the paper does not name victims of sexual assault.
The man and three others were arrested July 7, 2011, in the parking lot of a Citgo station at 4811 N. Teutonia Ave. Officers spotted a substance they believed to be codeine inside the van, according to the police report. After the group arrived at the District 7 station, the arresting officers called Vagnini in District 5. They called him because he “is highly knowledgeable with subjects in District Five, as well as District Seven,” the police report says. They also called Vagnini because three of the suspects live in District 5 and because the gas station is on the border between the two districts, the report says.
Vagnini searched Cossi’s client and another suspect in the booking room and found suspected cocaine “between (their) butt cheeks,” the report says.
Under state law, that would be considered a strip search, which 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.
Cossi said his client was not provided with those documents.
An improper strip search is illegal and carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 for the officer who conducted it.
Cossi’s client contends Vagnini went beyond a strip search and conducted a cavity search, which involves penetration.
Both the law and department policy prohibit police officers from doing a cavity search under any circumstances. Such searches can be performed only by a doctor, physician assistant or registered nurse. Done improperly, they could be construed as sexual assaults.
“I don’t know how these guys were trained and what the procedures were,” Cossi said. “That’s a big question mark. What is the administrative oversight for these searches?”