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Milwaukee officers suspected of illegal searches in drug cases

If you're suspected by police of committing a crime, you can expect to be thoroughly investigated. But how far can and should that investigation go before authorities themselves break the law? When it comes to drug charges, there are limits to the searches police are allowed to conduct. Currently seven Milwaukee officers and a sergeant are being investigated on suspicion they conducted illegal strip searches of drug suspects.

Complaints dating back a couple years accuse the officers of sexually assaulting people while performing body cavity searches on the street. The investigation was launched last month after the department of internal affairs detected a pattern.

Although the officers have been stripped of their badges, guns and street patrol duties, one of the officers has said he has no plans to change the way he does things when he's moved back off desk duty. The sergeant who was accused has been investigated in the past for accusations that he beat suspects and planted drugs on them, though he wasn't disciplined or charged for those allegations.

The investigation is exploring whether the officers violated department policy, state law or both. Neither allows police to do body cavity searches; they must be conducted by a doctor, physician assistant or registered nurse. And for this to happen, police need to get a warrant first. Once a search warrant is obtained, the suspect needs to be placed under arrest.

But the requirements don't stop there. The officer overseeing the search must be the same sex as the suspect and get written permission from the police chief or another police administrator. After the search, the officer is required to fill out a report stating the time, place and the people present and attach a copy of the written permission. A copy of the entire report must then be given to the suspect. And of course, none of this may be done without probable cause.

If you were the target of a strip search by police that you suspect was illegal, you may want to contact a criminal defense attorney to further examine your case. Drug charges that result from an illegal search could be reduced or dismissed, depending on the circumstances. Possession of drugs may be against the law, but it's also illegal for police to violate your Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "County Investigating Milwaukee police strip searches," Gina Barton, Daniel Bice and Gitte Laasby, March 26, 2012

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