- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A federal appeals court in Denver has upheld the conviction of a former New Mexico sheriff accused of pulling a gun on a motorist and striking him with his badge, denying his claim that the off-duty traffic stop was lawful and he did nothing wrong.

In a ruling filed Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed the civil rights violation conviction for ex-Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella.

“The evidence of Rodella’s guilt was overwhelming, and it is thus extremely doubtful that, even absent any improper closing remarks, the outcome of the trial would have been different,” the court wrote.

Rodella was sentenced in January 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. He also was ordered to pay a $200,000 fine and $10,335 in restitution.

Driving his personal SUV and wearing street clothes, prosecutors say Rodella followed motorist Michael Tafoya until they reached a dead end. The sheriff then jumped out holding his gun, dragged Tafoya into the street and struck him in the face with his badge, saying “it’s too late,” as Tafoya begged for his life, prosecutors said. Prosecutors argued Rodella was mad because the motorist had cut him off in traffic.

But his attorney, John Cline, had argued that improper jury instructions created an unfair trial.

Cline said the traffic stop was legal because the motorist was driving carelessly and the driver suffered no serious emotional injuries.

Rodella’s conviction in 2014 marked the end of his 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.

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