Otis pays 3 residents $45,000 after claims of 'malicious prosecution' by former police chief

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OTIS — The town of Otis has paid out a total of $45,000 to three residents who claimed they were vindictively prosecuted by former police chief Roberta Sarnacki, who was not reappointed to serve this year.

"My clients enjoy good reputations as residents and business owners in the town of Otis, which were damaged by Chief Sarnacki's actions," attorney Raymond Jacoub said of the two adults in a legal claim filed with the town last November. "Otis is a small town, and people have talked about both of my clients concerning the police action against them."

William Justin Hyland, Michael O'Brien and O'Brien's teenage son filed the claim with the town in November, alleging "malicious prosecution" after an incident earlier that year.

Police began investigating the teenager in August 2017 when he was suspected of operating a dirt bike in town without a license and failing to stop for a police officer during a pursuit.

The officer had learned that Hyland later transported the dirt bike after it was left at a camp, and suspected that it was in an effort to cover up evidence of the teenager's crime, according to the claim obtained through a public records request.

During a meeting with the teen Aug. 23, a little over a week after the incident, Sarnacki had agreed not to charge the teenager in juvenile court if he agreed to write an apology letter and perform community service. But after an apology was written, she didn't approve of one of the lines, which the teen refused to change, the document states.

Sarnacki then filed charges against the teen for that incident, as well as unlicensed operation from two dates that summer, according to the claim.

On Sept. 6, she issued a notice of revocation of his firearms identification card. Hyland and O'Brien were charged with offenses related to covering up a crime, but they were dismissed upon a clerk-magistrates hearing because those charges are only applicable with felony crimes, which the teen was not facing.

"It remains doubtful that police would have had sufficient evidence to file charges against the teenager, if it wasn't for his written confession and agreement to perform community service," Jacoub said in the claim. The confession was only written because there was an agreement not to file charges and the teenager was not read his Miranda rights, the attorney said.

Ultimately, the charges didn't result in findings of responsibility, Jacoub said, but the three spent money on legal fees.

"Because Chief Sarnacki waited two weeks from the Aug. 23 meeting before suspending [the teen's] license [and after the rejection of the apology and statement], it was more difficult to relate the suspension casually to the operation of the dirt bike on Aug 13, 2017," the claim said. "The delay reflected vindictiveness more than a concern for public safety."

Jacoub sought $25,000 from the town for each individual, but the town's liability insurance ultimately agreed to a settlement of $15,000 for each of the three.

Agreements that each plaintiff received the $15,000 were signed in August. Jacoub could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

"The town is satisfied by the settlement," said Attorney Jeremia Pollard, who represents Otis. "We're glad to have settled the case and move on."

Sarnacki had been the police chief in Otis for nine years, but the Select Board voted in June to not reappoint her for fiscal year 2019, which started July 1.

Sarnacki said this summer that she believed that her attempts to prosecute O'Brien and his father are what prompted her departure, claiming that their family is prominent in town and employs a large number of residents, including an Otis official.

"Michael O'Brien is a contractor who frequently volunteers for the town of Otis. Hyland is a landscaper," Jacoub said in the claim. The juvenile "mows lawns and plows snow when he's not in school, where he is an honor student and varsity football player."

Sarnacki filed her own legal claim against the town, alleging that the Select Board violated state law by only giving her a month's notice that she wouldn't be reappointed.

State law requires that towns give employees who don't have a contract a one-year notice that they will not be reappointed.

But Pollard said the chief signed a contract in 2010 that was still active. Under the contract, Sarnacki is only eligible for 30 days' pay, Pollard said.

Sarnacki had taken an interim police chief position in Blandford shortly before her departure from Otis, but in July, that entire four-officer department resigned en masse amid complaints of unsafe working conditions.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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