- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced a former New Mexico sheriff to 10 years in prison for abusing a driver in a bizarre, off-duty traffic stop that prosecutors described as a fit of road rage.

Ex-Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella told the judge at the sentencing hearing that he did good deeds during his tenure, and the court received letters from community members praising his service.

Others wrote letters criticizing the former sheriff over allegations that he abused his office, including one that compared Rodella to the Dallas Cowboys, U.S. District Judge James Browning said. Either you love him or you hate him, he said.

According to prosecutors, Rodella pulled a gun on Michael Tafoya and struck him in the face with his badge during the March incident because Tafoya cut him off in traffic.

Tafoya testified during the trial that he felt his life was in danger when Rodella chased him and pulled out his gun. “I said, ‘Please, don’t kill me,’” Tafoya told jurors.

Rodella, who was in plain clothes at the time, said Tafoya was a reckless driver whom he was trying to stop in the interest of public safety.

Defense attorneys sought to reduce Rodella’s sentence over health concerns. But prosecutors argued Rodella created a dangerous situation the day he pulled over a motorist, and health concerns weren’t an issue when he sought re-election.

“I hope this is part of your journey in life,” Browning told Rodella during sentencing. “I hope you use this time.”

The sentence, which includes three years of supervised release and a $200,000 fine, left Rodella’s family and friends in tears.

Among them was Rodella’s wife, Democratic state Rep. Debbie Rodella, who sobbed as others led her from the courtroom. Outside, family members consoled each other and declined to answer reporters’ questions.

Rodella was convicted of brandishing a firearm and deprivation of rights following a four-day trial in September. Authorities sought federal charges on civil rights violations following a state police and FBI investigation.

Defense lawyer Robert Gorence twice tried to win a new trial but was unsuccessful. He has said Rodella plans to appeal.

The former sheriff faced up to 17 years in prison.

U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez said he respected the judge’s decision even though Rodella avoided the maximum term. But Martinez noted law officers need to keep the public’s trust.

“When one of those officers crosses the line … that person needs to be held accountable,” he said.

The sentencing likely ends Rodella’s long, troubled career in politics and law enforcement.

Rodella was elected sheriff in 2010, despite having been ousted as a magistrate judge by the state Supreme Court two years earlier for misconduct. The court barred him from running again for judicial office.

Then-Gov. Bill Richardson appointed Rodella as a magistrate in 2005. But Rodella resigned a few months later amid criticism - and pressure from Richardson - for helping secure the release of a family friend who was jailed for drunken driving.

As a state police officer, Rodella was disciplined for marijuana use, improper use of a weapon, falsifying official reports, abusing sick leave and using his position for personal gain.

Last year, the FBI searched the sheriff’s office in Espanola after media reports that Rodella’s staff was accepting donations for a scholarship fund managed by Rodella, in lieu of prosecuting some traffic offenses. He was not charged in that case.

As an incumbent in the June primary, Rodella lost the Democratic nomination for Rio Arriba County sheriff to James Lujan by 200 votes. Lujan was a deputy whom Rodella had fired.

FBI agents searched Rodella’s home in the road rage case hours after he lost the election.


Follow Russell Contreras at https://twitter.com/russcontreras .

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