Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella was found guilty Friday on both counts – a civil rights charge for making an unconstitutional arrest of a motorist and a firearms charge for brandishing a gun during the crime – that he faced in a federal court trial in Albuquerque.
The jury’s verdict was announced about 5:45 p.m. to shrieks from the sheriff’s wife, state Rep. Debbie Rodella. The jury had deliberated since late morning after closing arguments in the trial that went for five days.
The sheriff was immediately handcuffed and taken into custody, over objections from his attorney Robert Gorence, who said Rodella is not a flight risk and told the Judge James O . Browning there were issues for an appeal. Rodella, 52, faces up to 17 years in prison.
Rodella’s lawyers have filed a “Hyde Amendment” claim of prosecutorial misconduct and allege that U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez has a “vendetta” against Rodella because the sheriff has refused to deputize U.S. Forest Service agents to enforce state law in Rio Arriba County.
The charges against the often-controversial sheriff stemmed from a vehicle chase and arrest in March. Rodella was in his private vehicle and plainclothes and was accused of shoving his badge into the face of motorist Michael Tafoya, 26, of Espanola, who said the sheriff had never identified himself before that point.
As Friday’s verdict was read, Rodella showed no visible emotion and kept his head down. His son Thomas Rodella Jr. and Rep. Rodella cried and hugged each other and other family members and supporters stood in stunned silence.
Prosecutor Tara Neda asked Browning to detain Rodella because he had been convicted of a crime of violence. Neda had no comment as she left the courtroom as U.S. marshals barred Rodella supporters and others from leaving the courtroom for several minutes.
In finding Rodella guilty, the jury determined that the sheriff used unreasonable force, unlawfully arrested Tafoya and used a dangerous weapon.
Tafoya, in police reports and at trial, maintained that Rodella and his son provoked what amounted to a road-rage incident by first tailgating him, then making “come on” motion as if they wanted to fight. Tafoya sped off but was trapped after he pulled into a driveway.
He testified he was begging for his life as an armed man who turned out to be Rodella wrestled with him and Rodella Jr. dragged him out of his car and threw him to the ground. Tafoya said that when Rodella Jr. told him the older man with a gun was the sheriff and Tafoya asked to see his badge, Rodella said, “Here’s my badge, mother(expletive)” and shoved the badge into Tafoya’s face. Tafoya was arrested and charged but his case was dismissed.
Rodella didn’t testify at this week’s trial, but he had said in police reports that he identified himself as sheriff at a stop early on in the encounter with Tafoya.
He and Rodella Jr., who did testify, maintained they followed Tafoya because he was driving dangerously. On the stand, Rodella Jr. said Tafoya was driving “like he was in the Indy 500,” but also faced questioning about his mental state resulting from a military injury and medications.
Other drivers testify
Helping back up Tafoya’s account were three other drivers who testified about intimidating encounters with the sheriff at traffic stops, including two that started with Rodella tailgating and one where the sheriff allegedly threw his badge at the driver.
Also, a jogger who witnessed part of the pursuit involving Tafoya confirmed that during the chase, Tafoya stopped and asked the jogger through his car window to call police. The same witness did say that the end of the pursuit, Tafoya nearly struck Rodella while backing up.
Rodella has been no stranger to controversy.
Last year, the FBI searched the sheriff’s office in Española to investigate whether his staff accepted donations to a scholarship fund and then looked the other way on donor’s traffic offenses. Rodella said the program helped students and denied any wrongdoing. No charges were ever filed.
Two years before being elected sheriff in 2010, Rodella was ousted as a magistrate judge by the state Supreme Court for several alleged infractions. The court barred him from running again for judicial office.
He had been appointed as a magistrate seat in 2005 by then-Gov. Bill Richardson, but resigned a few months later amid criticism — and pressure from Richardson — after news of disciplinary problems during his career at the State Police became public and there was controversy over his going to the jail to free a friend arrested for DWI.
Rodella retired from the State Police on a disability pension in 1995 after 13 years. During his time on the force, Rodella was disciplined for marijuana use, improper use of a weapon, falsifying official reports, abusing sick leave and using his position for personal gain, according to state reports.
State documents also show he was suspended for 30 days for firing at a deer decoy that game officers had set up to catch poachers. Rodella has declined comment on those reports.
As an incumbent in a June primary election, he lost the Democratic nomination for Rio Arriba County sheriff James Lujan by 200 votes. Lujan was a deputy Rodella whom had fired.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella has been found guilty on both counts – a civil rights charge for making an unconstitutional arrest of a motorist and a firearms charge – this afternoon by a jury after his federal court trial in Albuquerque.
The verdict was announced about 5:40 p.m. to shrieks from the sheriff’s wife, state Rep. Debbie Rodella.
The sheriff was immediately taken into custody. He faces up to 17 years in prison.
The charges stemmed from a vehicle chase and arrest in March. Rodella was in his private vehicle and plainclothes and was accused of shoving his badge into the face of motorist Michael Tafoya, 26, of Espanola, who said the sheriff had never identified himself before that point.
— Look for more on this story in the Journal or later on the web.