- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A proposal that would tighten eligibility rules for sheriffs in New Mexico and could transform sheriffs’ offices across the state cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday.

The House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee voted unanimously to approve the bill that would require sheriffs to have at least seven years of professional experience in law enforcement to run for the office.

Under the proposal, sheriffs also must be a certified law enforcement officer and cannot have been convicted of a felony or been recalled from public office.

State law currently only requires a sheriff candidate to be at least 21 and a U.S. citizen.

Jack LeVick, executive director of the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association, said the changes were needed to professionalize the position.

“Right now, convicted felons can run for the office of sheriff,” LeVick said. “That has to stop.”

Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, who sponsored the bill, said the office of the sheriff is an influential position in counties and the state needed to modernize it.

“So much weight is put on your work, on your integrity,” he said.

Out of the state’s 33 sheriffs, two don’t have law enforcement experience and one has an expired certification, according to state records.

The proposal comes after former Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella was sentenced earlier this year to 10 years in federal prison for abusing a driver in a bizarre, off-duty traffic stop that prosecutors described as a fit of road rage.

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.

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