Former Rio Arriba County sheriff Tommy Rodella, convicted in 2015 of federal civil rights violations, believes a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June should give him a shot at an early release from prison.
Rodella’s Houston-based attorney, Susan Clouthier, argues in a motion filed in November that the high court’s ruling in an unrelated Texas robbery case, in which Justice Neil Gorsuch called a federal firearms statute “unconstitutionally vague,” applies to 58-year-old Rodella.
The same law, a firearms enhancement, added seven years to Rodella’s sentence. The former lawman is serving a 10-year sentence in a federal prison in Seagoville, Texas, on charges of violating a man’s rights and brandishing a firearm.
The charges stem from an out-of-uniform traffic stop in which Rodella was accused of pulling a gun on an Española driver and striking the man in the face with his badge over a road rage incident. In 2014, a jury found Rodella guilty of subjecting Michael Tafoya, then 26, to unreasonable force and seizure.
Three other drivers testified about separate encounters with Rodella, alleging he had threatened them.
During the trial, prosecutors said Rodella’s son, Tommy Rodella Jr., had dragged Tafoya out of his car and threw him facedown in the dirt.
“I thought they were going to execute me,” Tafoya testified.
In November 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver upheld Tommy Rodella Sr.’s conviction, rejecting his arguments that he had been tried unfairly. A year later, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
In March, Rodella filed a new motion in his case, asking a court to vacate his sentence and overturn his conviction. He claimed he was not fairly represented by his previous attorney, Robert Gorence.
Gorence could not be reached for comment.
Rodella argued Gorence didn’t allow him to testify at trial and failed to investigate leads in 911 recordings. He also argued the charges against him were “an extension of a civil dispute” between the U.S. Forest Service and the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office. He claimed his refusal to deputize forest rangers within the county had prompted then-U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez to investigate and prosecute him.
In November, Clouthier made a request to amend the March motion to include the Supreme Court’s June ruling in U.S. v. Davis, in which justices voted 5-4 to strike a federal statute that added penalties if a gun was used during a “crime of violence.” Gorsuch — joining Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagen in the majority opinion — said the law was overbroad.
“A vague law is no law at all,” he wrote.
U.S. District Judge Carmen Garza granted Clouthier’s request to include the ruling in her motion asking the court to overturn Rodella’s conviction. The amended motion is due Dec. 11, and a response from federal attorneys is due Dec. 27.
Garza has not yet set a hearing on the motion.
Clothier declined to comment Tuesday.
Thomas Rodella Jr. also declined to comment and referred questions to his mother, former state Rep. Debbie Rodella, who could not be reached for comment.
Debbie Rodella served 26 years in the state House of Representatives before being unseated by Susan Herrera in the 2018 Democratic primary. According to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office, she is now a registered lobbyist for Associated Contractors of New Mexico and the Independent Community Bankers Association of New Mexico.
Tommy Rodella had a long and troubled career in government and law enforcement.
His ex-wife, Bernice Gomez, sued him in 1988, alleging assault and battery. Rodella has denied the allegations, claiming Gomez felt “spited.” Gomez, who died in 1997, dropped her lawsuit the same year it was filed.
In 2005, then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a fellow Democrat, appointed Rodella to fill a vacancy on the bench of the Rio Arriba County Magistrate Court. Richardson asked Rodella to step down four months later after Rodella had driven to the county jail in Tierra Amarilla to seek the release of an acquaintance suspected of drunken driving.
He won reelection to judgeship in 2006, but the state Judicial Standards Commission later accused him of misconduct in several cases. The New Mexico Supreme Court removed him from the bench in May 2008.
That didn’t stop Rodella from seeking elected office again, as he successfully ran for sheriff in 2010.
In 2013, FBI agents searched his office, looking into a scholarship fund that Rodella had set up to accept donations from motorists in lieu of traffic fines. No charges were filed.
Rodella lost his reelection bid for sheriff in the 2014 Democratic primary. The day after the election, FBI agents raided his home, looking for DNA evidence on his gun and badge that might corroborate Tafoya’s story.