New Mexico sheriff arrested on civil rights, weapons charges

Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella

Rio Arriba County Sheriff's Office

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella and his son, Tommy Rodella Jr., pleaded not guilty Friday morning in federal court to charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights, deprivation of rights, brandishing a firearm and falsifying police documents, according to CBS affiliate KQRE.

U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez announced the sheriff and his son were arrested by FBI agents at their Espanola homes early Friday for their role in a March 11 confrontation that left a driver injured.

Authorities wouldn't detail the injuries.

The sheriff and his son, the indictment said, engaged "in a high-speed pursuit and unreasonable seizure" of the driver identified only as M.T. The sheriff was not in uniform when he jumped out of his Jeep SUV armed with a silver revolver, court papers said.

The driver was dragged from his car and thrown into the dirt, according to the papers. Thomas Rodella, Jr., then identified his father as sheriff.

When the motorist asked to see Rodella's badge, the indictment said the sheriff pulled the motorist's head from the dirt by his hair then slammed his badge into his right cheek and eye.

Martinez, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, said both men "acted under the color of law" when they cornered the motorist at a dead end. He said it wasn't known if Rodella's son was an off-duty deputy at the time.

"We take little pleasure in charges against any law enforcement official," Martinez said at a news conference.

According to the station, both Rodellas were released on their own recognizance Friday afternoon. Sheriff Rodella will not be allowed to carry a gun. The younger Rodella will not be able to have any contact with law enforcement other than his father. The pair may not leave Rio Arriba County except for meetings with attorneys. The U.S. Attorney's office objected to the terms of release.

Sheriff Rodella's attorney, Bob Gorence, told KRQE-TV at the arraignment he was pleased a federal judge agreed to arraign both men because they wanted a speedy trial.

"We can't wait to try this, and I expect an inevitable acquittal and vindication," Gorence said.

The sheriff, whose wife, Debbie, is a longtime Democratic state legislator, has a faced a parade of misconduct allegations in his time in law enforcement and politics.

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.

And in June, FBI agents raided Rodella's home just hours after he lost the Democratic nomination for Rio Arriba County sheriff to challenger James Lujan by 200 votes. Lujan was a deputy Rodella had fired.

Rodella's home was raided as authorities investigated the March arrest of 26-year-old Michael Tafoya, a driver Rodella had detained, Rodella's then spokesman Jake Arnold said at the time.

Tafoya was arrested on charges of aggravated assault of a peace officer and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon on March 11, but prosecutors dismissed the case two weeks later.

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.

He had been appointed as a magistrate in 2005 by then Gov. Bill Richardson, but resigned a few months later amid criticism - and pressure from Richardson - for helping secure the release of a family friend who had been 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. He also was suspended for 30 days for firing at a deer decoy that game officers had set up to catch poachers.

Rodella served in the state police from 1982 until retiring in 1995 on a disability pension.