Jury orders damages in Milwaukee strip-search case

File photo of police emergency lights.
File photo.

MILWAUKEE (AP) – A federal jury ruled Thursday that Milwaukee police officers violated a man’s civil rights by strip-searching him in public without a legal reason and wrongfully arresting him.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the jury awarded the man more than a half million dollars – $6,000 in compensation for being illegally searched and wrongly arrested, and $500,000 in punitive damages. Since the officers were on duty, the city is responsible for paying.

More than 60 people have sued the city of Milwaukee and the police department over improper strip and cavity searches between 2008 and 2012. This is the first case to go to trial.

Leo Hardy, 40, of Milwaukee, claimed he was illegally searched in March 2012 by Officer Michael Gasser. The officer said he and his colleagues did nothing wrong.

Jurors, who received the case Thursday after closing arguments, were tasked with deciding whether police had reasonable suspicion to search Hardy, and if so, whether the searches were conducted properly. The jury found that the officers did not have “reasonable suspicion” – the minimum level needed for them to conduct a search- that Hardy had committed a crime or posed a threat, the Journal Sentinel reported.

After the verdict, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn released a statement saying the city attorney’s office may consider appealing a portion of the jury’s verdict.

Russell Ainsworth, one of Hardy’s attorneys, said during closing arguments that jurors should impose monetary damages to send a message that public strip searches are wrong.

“In our system of justice you cannot discipline police officers; you cannot ask that they be fired; you cannot ask they be suspended,” Ainsworth told the jury. “The only way you can make Leo Hardy whole is by awarding money damages. We ask that you consider the humiliation that Mr. Hardy felt when he was standing on the street, with Officer Gasser’s hands in his pants.”

Hardy testified that Gasser reached into the front and back of his pants, and that Hardy ran when Gasser squeezed his penis. Hardy said he was caught and arrested and a second officer, Michael Valuch Jr., searched him again and pulled down his pants on the street.

One witness, Dorothy Lee Smith, said she saw Hardy handcuffed, with his pants around his ankles.

Gasser claimed he felt a softball-sized package of suspected drugs in Hardy’s pants, and when he asked what it was, Hardy ran.

Assistant City Attorney Sue Lappen told the jury she believed Smith was mistaken in what she saw, and her view was obstructed. Lappen also said the officers were justified in searching Hardy and did so appropriately.

“Our officers are husbands and fathers and sons. They want to go home at the end of the day,” Lappen said. “They want to be sure they check for weapons before they take the next step in the investigation.”

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