Pittsfield Police Officer Michael McHugh to serve a year in jail for assault

Pittsfield Police Officer Michael McHugh, left, was ordered Friday to serve a year in jail for his role in a 2016 assault and subsequent cover-up. His neighbor, Jason LaBelle, right, was ordered to serve six months of house arrest in the case.

PITTSFIELD — On July 4, 2016, off-duty city Police Officer Michael McHugh sent a man to the hospital with seven fractured ribs and a fractured vertebra.

Next week, he'll be sent to jail.

Judge John Agostini on Friday sentenced McHugh to serve one year of a two-year sentence in jail after being convicted last month of assault and battery, filing a false police report and misleading police. The balance of that sentence will be suspended during a two-year period of probation after his release. McHugh's co-defendant, Jason LaBelle, charged in the same assault of his estranged father in-law, Michael Cebula, was given a two-year suspended jail sentence but must serve six months of a two-year probation period under house arrest.

LaBelle was convicted of misleading a judge, misleading a clerk and filing a false criminal complaint.

The men were convicted Nov. 27, after 20 hours of jury deliberations. Sentencing will be imposed Dec. 27.

Cebula briefly addressed the court and described himself as physically and emotionally broken since the assault. He said he lives in constant fear and suffers from nightmares to this day.

Special prosecutor Steven Gagne was seeking a total of two years in jail for McHugh and a total of one year in jail for LaBelle. He said McHugh used an unnecessary amount of force and abused his authority as a police officer when he pulled Cebula out of his truck and placed him in custody.

Gagne acknowledged McHugh's 20 years as a police officer but said that experience should have led him to exercise better judgment that night.

McHugh's role as a police officer, even an off-duty one, compounded the assault and battery, Gagne said, because it was committed while acting in that capacity. It wasn't like a fight outside a bar, completely unrelated to his police work, Gagne said.

The ensuing cover-up, Gagne said, compounded the other crime in the case.

He acknowledged the amount of support behind McHugh, including the nearly 50 letters filed on his behalf by his attorney, Timothy Shugrue, but said his actions that night reflected a different side of him.

"It shows another aspect of his character that's in stark contrast to the picture he'll try to present today," he said.

Police officers, Gagne said, are held to a higher standard of conduct than other people. "[McHugh] failed to meet that high standard," he said.

Gagne said his sentencing recommendation would help reinforce the bedrock principle that no one is above the law.Steps taken for dismissalShugrue said his client already had been punished and will continue to be punished beyond whatever penalty the court was going to impose, including by what he described as being humiliated by media coverage of the case.He noted the approximately $250,000 in salary McHugh lost as result of being placed on unpaid suspension as a consequence of his indictment and the loss of his pension, which Shugrue estimated as being worth $2.2 million.

"We all know he's getting fired," he said, noting that a felony conviction would interfere with job prospects.

Indeed, Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn said Friday that steps were being taken to formally dismiss McHugh, who has been on unpaid suspension since August 2017.

Wynn said McHugh will be served with a notice of intent to terminate, in accordance with state regulations.

McHugh is entitled to a civil service hearing in the matter, and Wynn said the department is working to schedule that hearing as soon as possible.

No person convicted of a felony can serve as a police officer in Massachusetts, Wynn noted.

Shugrue argued for three years of probation, one year of which would be served under house arrest. That, he said, would accomplish the same goals as Gagne's sentence recommendation, without the added risk posed by putting a police officer in jail.

Nine people, including McHugh's wife and several retired Pittsfield Police officers, addressed the court on his behalf. They spoke of his professionalism and integrity, and described him as a role model, and a devoted husband and father.

Shugrue noted McHugh's lack of criminal records and civilian complaints against him.

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He described him as a hardworking family man, pointing out his work with youth sports and the Special Olympics, saying that he always was willing to help people.

"The mistake he made," Shugrue said, "was helping that night."

Shugrue said the assault was an isolated incident and that McHugh presented no danger to the community.

"It's a sad day for everyone," Agostini said. "There are no winners here."

He said he was aware there already were collateral consequences for McHugh from having been charged and convicted, but he couldn't necessarily consider those when crafting a sentence.

For example, he said, he couldn't send a poor person to jail for a crime and then not send a wealthier person to jail for the same crime simply because they would suffer more financial consequences as a result.The court, he said, sentences people for what they did, not who they are.

Agostini acknowledged the inherent danger in being a police officer behind bars, but he noted that there were serious injuries inflicted upon Cebula — far more than would be expected in the course of an operating under the influence arrest.

They were not the actions of someone whose duty it was to protect and serve, Agostini said.

"Street justice" administered by a police officer is something one would expect to see in developing countries, Agostini said, but not here.

McHugh's convictions on charges of filing a false police report and misleading a police officer were more troubling, the judge said, because they undermined the public's trust in the legal system.

"If the public no longer believes law enforcement officers," he said, "we have chaos."He said the false report was intended to conceal the true nature of the incident and to bring the entire justice system down on Cebula.Several people left the courtroom muttering their dissatisfaction with the sentence, and at least one hurled taunts at Cebula on his way out.

In the case of LaBelle, who was sentenced separately, Gagne argued for a total of one year in jail, followed by two years of probation.

Gagne said that by concocting the cover story and repeatedly presenting it during the investigation, LaBelle deliberately set about to use the criminal justice system and the courts as a weapon against Cebula.

He acknowledged that there had been an offer for LaBelle to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts and serve a term of probation. But, he said, the court shouldn't consider that as a reflection of the seriousness of the charges or hold it against the state now that jail time was being sought post-conviction.'He does feel remorse'LaBelle's attorney, Timothy Burke, called it a very troubling case with no easy solution. He said his client rejected the plea deal because it would have required him to plead guilty to an assault and battery charge he denies.Burke submitted about 35 letters on LaBelle's behalf.

He described his client as a good father and decent human being, and also spoke of the collateral consequences of the case, including the loss of his business license and being forced to sell his home.

Burke suggested a sentence of probation with whatever conditions the court would find appropriate, including a curfew.

"He made a mistake, obviously," Burke said. "He does feel remorse, clearly."

Agostini said LaBelle simply made up a cover story as a way to explain how Cebula's injuries were inflicted.

He said it was intentional and, for a time, successful, until surveillance video surfaced that disputed his claims.

At trial, Shugrue and Burke argued that LaBelle and his family were in fear of Cebula, whom they said was exhibiting concerning behavior, and McHugh acted properly when he took Cebula into custody on suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

The attorneys argued that the indictments were the result of Cebula's perjured testimony about how much he had to drink that day and that, due to his level of intoxication, his recollection of that night's events was unreliable.Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@berkshireeagle.com, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.