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Milwaukee police accused of performing illegal body cavity searches

Seven officers and a supervisor at the Milwaukee police department have had their badges taken away after allegations surfaced that police have been conducting body cavity searches on suspects with no authority to do so.

Reports of officers arresting suspects then subjecting them to cavity searches first surfaced in local media in March. On Monday, after getting access to a police report, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that officers allegedly performed these searches on a routine basis.

One Milwaukee officer, Michael Vagnini, "had a reputation" for forcing suspects he believed had drugs in their body cavities to bend over for him, said defense attorney Alex Cossi, who handled a July 2011 case that alleges Vagnini searched his client and another suspect in the booking room.


"This was not a rogue happenstance. This was a tacit acceptance of strip searches without proper procedures or supervision," Cossi told The Journal Sentinel.

Vagnini found suspected cocaine "between (their) butt cheeks," the police report said.

Strip searches, which Wisconsin state law defines as searching "a detained person's genitals, pubic area, buttock or anus, or a detained female person's breast," can only be performed by a doctor, physician's assistant or registered nurse. The state law requires written permission before a strip search is conducted, unless there's probable cause to believe the suspect is hiding a weapon.

Cossi said his client was not provided with written documents before Vagnini performed the cavity search, which is a strip search involving penetration, on him. Because improper tactics were used to find the cocaine, the drug dealing charge against Cossi's client was thrown out, The Journal Sentinel reported.

It's not clear how many allegations of cavity searches the Police Department is facing. 

"A number of people came forward so that we have many more complaints than we certainly started out with," Milwaukee police Chief Edward Flynn said at a news conference Wednesday on April 11. "Of those complaints, I'd say a significant majority of them are of a very similar nature, which indicates that we have more people to talk to than we initially had."

An improper strip search carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000, according to Wisconsin law.

Vagnini, six other officers and a supervisor, Sgt. Jason Mucha, have had their badges and guns taken away while the department investigates the claims.

In March, an alleged victim came forward to speak to NBC's TMJ-4 to talk about his claim, which he said happened when he was only 15.

'They slammed me on the ground'
Kevin Freeman Jr. told TMJ-4 he and his friends were violated during a traffic stop in December.

"When they searched me they eased their hands right between my butt.  I tried to reach back and soon as I tried to reach back to stop them, they slammed me on the ground," Freeman said.  

It's illegal to conduct a body cavity search outside, where people other than the one conducting the search could see it taking place.

Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne Schwartz told msnbc.com she could not comment on the matter since it was a pending investigation. Police chief Edward Flynn said in a news conference in March the cavity search complaints go back a couple of years. The department's internal investigation will determine whether searches violated department policy, state law, or both, The Journal Sentinel said.

Improperly conducted body searches can be construed under Wisconsin law as sexual assaults because of their invasive nature. It's not clear how much penetration allegedly occurred during the searches.

John Birdsall, a Milwaukee defense attorney, said that if the claims are true, police are abusing their authority.

"One thing is clear, if they're doing rectal searches in the field, that's just illegal," he told the Journal Sentinel. "Clothes or no clothes, you can't do a body cavity search. They don't have the authority to do that."

Milwaukee County prosecutors have launched a John Doe investigation, in which prosecutors can subpoena documents without public knowledge. The FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office are monitoring the investigation, The Journal Sentinel reported, and could launch an investigation.

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