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Jailed Cop’s Bad Searches Prompt Civil Suit

MILWAUKEE (CN) - A police officer serving time for conducting illegal strip and body-cavity searches owes punitive damages to the subject of one such search, a man claims in Federal Court.

Edward Earl Wright says he was near his parked truck outside his mother's house in Milwaukee after midnight when Officers Michael Vagnini, Jacob Knight, Jeffrey Cline, Gregory Kuspa and Jason Mucha stopped him and asked if he had drugs or guns.

When Wright said he did not, Vagnini allegedly accused the man of lying and began searching his truck without his consent.

"After searching Mr. Wright's vehicle and finding nothing, Officer Vagnini put plastic gloves on his hands and reached inside Mr. Wright's pants, grabbing and searching Mr. Wright's genitalia; once again without Mr. Wright's consent; without probable cause; and without a reasonable basis to do so," the complaint states.

Vagnini has since pleaded no contest to eight criminal charges related to illegal body-cavity and strip searches, for which he is now serving a 26-month sentence. Charges of sexual assault were dismissed.

"Said charges occur[ed] with respect to other African American males in Milwaukee," like Wright, the complaint states.

Wright notes that Knight was also fined and sentenced to community service after pleading no contest to charges related to an illegal body-cavity search and being party to a crime.

He says Vagnini directed officers to detain Wright in a police car after searching his truck and body, while he and two other officers approached Wright's mother's house.

"When Ms. Wright went to the door in response to this knocking, Officer Vagnini told her that her son, Edward, wanted to talk to her," the complaint states. "After Ms. Wright opened the door, Officer Vagnini and three other of said officers entered her house without her consent and without a search warrant; with two of said officers searching her entire house, also without her consent."

The officers allegedly found a 9mm automatic pistol in the basement of Wright's mother's house, but Vagnini officially reported he found in Wright's truck, according to the complaint

Wright says he was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon and felony bail jumping. In his police report, Vagnini allegedly reported that he had found the gun in Wright's truck after pulling him over for a seatbelt violation.

Vagnini's false testimony gave the court probable cause to bring Wright to trial, and criminal charges remained pending for months, according to the complaint.

The criminal complaints against Knight and Vagnini were filed on Oct. 9, 2012 - five days after the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office dismissed the charges against Wright, he says.

Wright alleges he was detained and searched without probable cause, among other claims.

"That with respect to his search of Mr. Wright's genitalia, Officer Vagnini ... was not a health care professional and furthermore, conducted this invasive and unreasonable search of Mr. Wright's person in an unsafe and intentionally humiliating fashion," the complaint states.

Meanwhile, "Officers Knight, Cline, Kuspa and Mucha took no action to intervene and stop Officer Vagnini's unconstitutional conduct with respect to Mr. Wright, even though they had the duty, ability and opportunity to do so," the complaint states.

Wright seeks damages for unreasonable search and seizure, false arrest, failure to intervene, conspiracy and malicious prosecution, among other things.

In addition to Vagnini and his fellow officers, the complaint names Police Chief Edward Flynn and the city of Milwaukee as defendants.

Wright is represented by Ronald Bornstein.

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