Want your ticket dropped? Make a donation

ESPAñOLA – A Rio Arriba Sheriff’s Office program offering dismissal of traffic citations in exchange for a donation to several charities, including a scholarship fund managed by Sheriff Tommy Rodella, is apparently the target of an FBI investigation.

The FBI served a search warrant on the sheriff’s office Wednesday, and county spokeswoman Erika Martinez said it was her understanding that agents are investigating allegations that citations may have been unlawfully dismissed.

Martinez said the allegations are that when a deputy pulls someone over, the driver is given the option of either getting a citation or donating to the scholarship fund, which Rodella established in December 2011.

In addition to the sheriff’s scholarship fund, drivers seeking to have traffic charges dropped have the option of making voluntary donations to CrimeStoppers or DWI and domestic violence programs, according to a document provided by the sheriff’s office.

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Documents also show dismissal is subject to approval by Rodella and indicate that the state Administrative Office of the Courts did not object when asked if the sheriff’s office had discretion to dismiss citations in exchange for charitable donations.

Sheriff’s spokesman Jake Arnold said the FBI agents who served the search warrant on Wednesday took documents. No arrests were made, he said.

Martinez said county government is largely in the dark about the investigation. County Manager Tomas Campos “says he hopes nothing illegal is going on and if they do find out something illegal is going on, he doesn’t condone it,” Martinez said.

Rio Arriba County Magistrate Judge Alex Naranjo, in an interview with KOB-TV, said he was alarmed by the sheriff’s office program. “Something like that shouldn’t be adjudicated out on the highway,” Naranjo told KOB.

Elizabeth Martinez, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said search warrant affidavits, which would detail the allegations and what agents sought with the search warrant, were under seal and would likely not be released until the agents file documents showing what they collected from the sheriff’s office.

The Rio Arriba Sheriff’s Office Scholarship Fund is a domestic nonprofit that lists Rodella, sheriff’s office spokesman Arnold and a former contract employee with the office, Richard Guillen, as directors, according to records on the state Public Regulation Commission website.

The purpose of the fund, according to a document on sheriff’s office letterhead provided by Arnold, is to aid college students from Rio Arriba County who pursue careers in law enforcement. The description states that this fund pays no fees to staff or fundraising consultants.

The fund is not a county program, according to county spokeswoman Martinez. She said the county management did not authorize using county resources to raise money for the fund.

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Arnold, who said Rodella would not comment on the case, denied that deputies were dismissing tickets in exchange for donations to the scholarship fund.

But he also provided a form that is an application for dismissal of traffic tickets in return for donations to one of four charities, including the scholarship fund.

Dismissal request

The form is titled “Request for Dismissal Pre-prosecution diversion.”

The form states: “On a purely voluntary basis … I seek dismissal/pre-prosecution diversion in the matter described above, in which I am a defendant/suspect.” It goes on to state that the dismissal or diversion is dependant on Rodella’s approval.

The person submitting an application can write in a donation amount in a blank field, then check a box for either the scholarship fund, CrimeStoppers, the Rio Arriba County DWI Prevention Program or the Peacekeepers Domestic Violence Counseling Program.

Arnold also provided a November letter from state Administrative Office of the Courts, which answers questions from Arnold about the possibility of defendants donating to a charity in exchange for having their cases dismissed.

Karen Janes, director of the magistrate court division for the Office of the Courts, answers two questions from Arnold: whether a magistrate court could order defendants to make a donation to a charity in return for a dismissed sentence and whether a prosecutor could dismiss a case if the defendant contributes to charity.

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On the first question, Arnold says the court doesn’t have the authority to dismiss a case in return for a charitable donation.

To the second question, she responds that “it is up to the prosecutor if the prosecutor wishes to dismiss a case” and that a prosecutor can dismiss a case for any reason or no reason.

“The Administrative Office of the Courts is certainly not in the business of telling prosecutors how to prosecute their cases, so I respectfully leave the decision of whether to implement such a policy to Sheriff Tommy Rodella,” Janes’ states.

Janes is out of the office until next week, and she could not be reached for comment.

District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco said Thursday that in matters where someone is in court on a traffic citation, it’s the officer who issued the citation who prosecutes the case, not a lawyer from the district attorney’s office.

Arnold on Thursday answered a few questions before declining to comment further.

He said “no money whatsoever” has been paid out of the scholarship fund, but he did not know how much money was in the fund. He said donors could make checks or money orders to the fund. These could either be accepted by Arnold, the sheriff or someone else, but fund does not accept cash payments.

“People have donated to the fund that have nothing to do with any traffic citations,” Arnold said.

Arnold was asked if anyone who had a traffic citation donated to the fund.

“I’m not going to answer that right now,” Arnold said.
— This article appeared on page A01 of the Albuquerque Journal

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