A former Milwaukee police officer who performed illegal strip and body cavity searches on dozens of drug suspects was sentenced Friday to 26 months in prison and an additional 34 months of extended supervision.
Michael Vagnini, 34, pleaded no contest in April to four felonies and four misdemeanors stemming from his practice but avoided conviction for sexual assault charges, which were dismissed.
Prosecutors and the judge said Vagnini’s actions shocked the conscience of the community, but his own lawyer said the whole system was to blame for encouraging and rewarding Vagnini’s aggressive tactics, which he said were no secret within the department and the court system.
“He’s left holding the bag for everybody,” Michael Steinle told the court, noting that all his client ever wanted to do was stop crime.
Vagnini’s family, friends and former colleagues packed one half of the gallery, and had submitted numerous letters of support, citing his otherwise exemplary professional and personal life. His wife broke down sobbing when Circuit Judge Jeffrey Wagner finally announced the sentence at the end of the two-hour hearing, and Vagnini was led away in handcuffs. She and Vagnini’s other supporters declined to speak with reporters afterward.
Tory Lowe, a community activist, called the prison term a positive step to rebuilding trust among the population and the police.
“Rogue policing in Milwaukee has to come to an end,” he said after the hearing.
While prosecutors agreed to dismiss sexual assault counts as part of the plea deal, Assistant District Attorney Miriam Falk made clear Friday that she believes that offense occurred, repeatedly. She said while Vagnini may not have sought or obtained any sexual arousal or gratification from reaching into suspects’ rectal areas, he knew the victims could not ignore that element.
“I know Michael Vagnini understood the sexual undertones of what was going on,” Falk said. “It was intended to degrade and humiliate them, and that’s what makes it a sexual assault.”
She also did not believe Vagnini targeted suspects by race, but that their “degradation was exacerbated by the fact that they were black and he was white.”
Steinle said the case was never a sexual assault case, and that Vagnini denies he ever penetrated any victim’s anus with his finger.
The felony convictions, for misconduct in public office, cost Vagnini his job. The underlying conduct, conducting illegal strip searches, accounted for the misdemeanor charges. Wagner imposed the same sentence — 13 months in prison plus 17 months of extended supervision — on each felony count, but made two of them consecutive, and the rest concurrent. He also imposed concurrent sentences of 90 days for each misdemeanor count.
Wagner, who presided over a John Doe investigation of the illegal searches, didn’t buy Steinle’s assertions that Vagnini thought he was within the law.
“You did in fact know better,” Wagner told him.
Prosecutors had recommended only unspecified prison time; Steinle suggested 12 to 18 months was appropriate.
Assigned to District 5, Vagnini regularly pulled over drivers on a pretense of not wearing a seatbelt or of having darkly tinted windows and searched them without a legal reason, according to prosecutors.
Vagnini conducted searches of men’s anal and scrotal areas, often inserting his fingers into their rectums, according to the criminal complaint. Vagnini acknowledged performing one of the searches, and at least one suspect said Vagnini planted drugs on him.
State law and police procedures prohibit officers from conducting body cavity searches. Only medical personnel are allowed to perform them, and police must first obtain a search warrant.
The searches occurred on the street and in district stations over a period of two years.
The Milwaukee Police Department has said it initiated three separate investigations into these allegations, with the first beginning in 2010.
The first investigation could not be substantiated with the available evidence, according to the department. A year later, a second investigation could not be completed because of the death of the complainant. In 2012, a third investigation resulted in Internal Affairs referring the case to the district attorney’s office, which began the John Doe.
Three other police officers charged with Vagnini — Jeffrey Dollhopf, Brian Kozelek and Jacob Knight — had their cases separated because they face fewer counts and were not charged with sexual assault. They are charged with misconduct in office and being parties to the crimes of illegal searches, based on their on-duty presence when prosecutors say Vagnini committed them.
They also are suspended with pay, pending trials later this year.
The fallout from the case did lead to revised department policies regarding searches and records of searches. The ACLU of Wisconsin applauded the changes but urged further vigilance, as well as consequences for supervisors who fail to notice, or ignore misconduct, said Chris Ahmuty, executive director.