Four MPD officers accused of conducting illegal strip searches plead not guilty

MILWAUKEE — Four Milwaukee police officers charged for criminal misconduct related to illegal strip searches pleaded not guilty during their arraignment Thursday morning, November 15th.

Earlier this month, Michael Vagnini, Jeffrey Dollhopf, Brian Kozelek and Jacob Knight were in court for a preliminary hearing. During that hearing, a judge ruled that there was enough probable cause to sent them to trial.

Meanwhile, the officers remain on paid leave from the Milwaukee Police Department -- accused in connection with illegal body cavity searches.

34-year-old Officer Michael Vagnini faces 25 counts of violating the strip search law, misconduct in public office and second-degree sexual assault. If convicted of these crimes, Vagnini faces up to 40 years in prison and $100,000 in fines.

41-year-old Officer Jeffrey Dollhopf faces two counts of violating the strip search law and two counts of misconduct in public office.

Officers Brian Kozelek, 33 and Jacob Knight, 31 each face one count of violating the strip search law and one count of misconduct in public office.

Attorney Jonathan Safran represents a number of the alleged victims in this case. He said Thursday he wasn't surprised by the not guilty pleas, but said his clients are most concerned about the actual charges, and want convictions. 

"There will be motions, many motions that will be filed.  There will certainly be things that are going to be argued both in regard to maybe even changing venue where the case occurs.  There will be motions certainly as far as maybe separating the cases from each other.  There will be other cases as far as that they may argue further, as far as the validity of some of the charges, so this is all the normal process in most criminal cases," Safran said.

The criminal complaint against the officers details several instances in which illegal strip searches were allegedly conducted. Many of the allegations began with a traffic stop, leading to a pat down and eventually what prosecutors say were illegal cavity searches.

The complaint details multiple other instances in which the officers accused made illegal strip searches during traffic stops as well as at the District 5 police station. In each of the cases, the officers were allegedly attempting to get drugs they believed were concealed within body cavities on the persons they were searching.

According to the police department, an officer is allowed to perform a strip search when they have written permission from the chief, and have probable cause to believe the detained person is concealing a weapon. These types of searches are not allowed to take place in front of the eyes of anyone not conducting the search.

Under the department’s policy and state law, cavity searches may only be performed by physicians, physician’s assistants or nurses.

Originally, seven officers and one supervisor were taken off the streets in connection with the investigation. Four were restored to active duty.

If an officer is found to have conducted an illegal strip search, they could face up to 90 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. The four officers charged have been suspended with pay.

Two status hearings have been scheduled for December and January with the actual trial beginning April 29th.

CLICK HERE for additional coverage on the alleged illegal strip searches conducted by MPD officers.