Former New Mexico sheriff to serve 10 years for rights violations

By Joseph Kolb

By Joseph Kolb

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Reuters) - A former New Mexico sheriff was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a federal court on Wednesday after he was found guilty of violating a motorist's civil rights last year when he dragged the man from his car and threatened him with a gun.

Tommy Rodella, 53, was sheriff of Rio Arriba County but was in plainclothes and brandishing a pistol when he and his son confronted the motorist in March 2014. When the victim asked to see some identification, prosecutors said, Rodella slammed his sheriff's badge into the man's face.

Rodella was convicted in September. He had faced up to 17 years behind bars, but U.S. District Judge James Browning gave him seven years on a firearm charge, and three years and one month on a charge of violating the victim's civil rights. He was also ordered to pay a $200,000 fine and restitution.

"When he attacked a defenseless innocent civilian, Sheriff Rodella chose to abuse his power rather than uphold his oath to protect the public," Damon Martinez, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, said in a statement.

He said the Justice Department will "vigorously" prosecute any officer who crosses the line, because they discredit their colleagues and weaken public trust in law enforcement.

According to court papers, Rodella was driving an unmarked vehicle when he pulled over the motorist, Michael Tafoya. He entered Tafoya's vehicle and struck him with a silver revolver, prosecutors said, while the victim begged not to be shot.

Rodella and his 26-year-old son, Thomas Rodella Jr., were arrested by FBI agents in August. His son avoided prosecution due to doubts about his cognitive ability, court papers said.

Rodella's controversial career spanned almost three decades. The Albuquerque Journal said that as a state police officer in the 1980s he was disciplined for marijuana use, physical abuse and improper use of a weapon. In 1993 he allegedly shot at a deer decoy set up by state game wardens to catch poachers.

In 2008 the New Mexico Supreme Court fired him from his post as a magistrate court judge in Rio Arriba County for "willful misconduct" after he involved himself in a friend's drunken driving case, and also promised to rule in favor of campaign supporters if they faced any litigation in his court.

(Reporting by Joseph Kolb; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)