California man who hit police officer with bear spray at Capitol insurrection found guilty

U.S. Attorney's Office

A Northern California man was found guilty Monday of assaulting officers with bear spray and obstructing the certification of 2020 election results at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Sean Michael McHugh could serve up to 20 years in prison and three years of supervised release because of his role at the insurrection, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates said during the half-day bench trial on Monday. McHugh, 35, also could pay up to $250,000 in fines and other penalties.

The Auburn construction worker agreed that some actions he took on Jan. 6 — the use of bear spray against police officers and goading rioters with a megaphone that “We’re storming the Capitol” and “This is our country, we’re not going to let this happen” — could result in a guilty verdict.

In turn, federal prosecutors dismissed eight of the 10 counts McHugh faced in his indictment.

While McHugh admitted in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to spraying a police officer and pushing a metal sign, he said those actions were taken out of context. McHugh agreed to facts stipulated upon by prosecutors and his lawyer, Joseph Allen, but he wanted to contextualize his actions before being sentenced.

He mentioned that his mother was being hit by rubber bullets around the time he unloaded bear spray onto the police officer. McHugh also said that his bear spray was not as strong as what police officers used on Jan. 6.

The bear spray McHugh used, the judge said, was 50% stronger than police pepper spray and hazardous to humans. McHugh temporarily blinded a police officer during the riot.

Later in direct Facebook messages, the judge noted, McHugh wrote, “I unloaded a whole can of bear spray on a line of cops I got three of them down really really good.”

And McHugh with other rioters pushing a 10- to 15-foot-wide metal sign into officers, the judge said, could have knocked someone unconscious. McHugh said that he did not intend to harm officers, rather he thought protesters were flipping the sign, which featured former President Donald Trump, around to demonstrate that, “Yes, this is Trump country.”

Bates said McHugh shouted police officers were “protecting pedophiles” and “protecting communists.” He said that McHugh claimed “I have a job to do, and it’s defend the Constitution.”

In declaring his guilty verdict, Bates said that McHugh voluntarily assaulted a police officer with bear spray, causing bodily harm, and knowingly intended to halt the certification of President Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral win by calling rioters to the Capitol with his megaphone.

McHugh is expected to be sentenced in Washington on Sept. 7 and will remain in custody in the district until then. He retains the right to appeal the count of obstructing the certification of 2020 electoral votes and the sentence Bates hands down.

Almost two years in custody

McHugh’s attorney Allen — a Branson, Missouri, lawyer, whom he retained last year after asking to replace his federal defender — appeared via videoconference: His flight was canceled and rebooked. McHugh claimed many times that he had trouble speaking with Allen from the correctional facility he has been held at.

He has been held in a Washington, D.C., jail for about two years.

McHugh had asked to be released pending trial because of his deteriorating mental health, claims of abuse and need to help his family. He had also asked his trial be moved to Sacramento and his charges dismissed multiple times. The judge denied these requests in March.

Amy Hunt, his fiance who was at his trial on Monday, wrote in an online fundraising campaign that McHugh was being held in “solitary confinement conditions” and was “scared for his life.” She wrote that he was like any conservative American; the effort had raised more than $69,000 before McHugh’s trial started Monday.

“Sean stood up his country that day like everyone else did that day to peacefully rally for the truth,” Hunt wrote. “Sean never imagined the nightmare that he would witness and become trapped in.”

Before the Jan. 6 riot, McHugh had accumulated a criminal history in the Sacramento region dating back to 2006. Most of these happened while he was on probation and supervised, court documents say as part of the reason why he has been held in custody.

Bates, the judge, said that this criminal history could enhance his penalties, depending on what court officers recommend through a report in line with sentencing guidelines.

More than 1,000 charged over insurrection

McHugh is one of more than 1,020 people who have been charged nationwide for the insurrection. He was one of about 339 defendants facing charges of assaulting, resisting or impeding officers, according to April 5 tallies by the Justice Department.

He is one of four Sacramento-area residents prosecuted for crimes that took place during the insurrection. He faced the most serious charges, and was the only one who remained in custody for the duration of the case.

Jorge Aaron Riley, a Republican Party activist from Sacramento, pleaded guilty to a single felony count of obstructing an official proceeding in March as a result of his actions on Jan. 6, which included allegedly entering then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Riley, 45, is expected to be sentenced in September.

Tommy Frederick Allan of Rocklin, who was accused of taking a U.S. flag and some documents from the Senate, was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison years in December. Allan, 54, must also pay $2,000 to the Architect of the Capitol and a $100 fine.

Valerie Elaine Ehrke, an Arbuckle home designer, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of parading or picketing at the Capitol. In 2021, Ehrke, 55, was sentenced to three years probation, 120 hours of community service and $500 fine for the Architect of the Capitol.