By Joseph Kolb
ALBUQUERQUE N.M. (Reuters) - A New Mexico sheriff was found guilty by a federal jury on Friday of violating a motorist's civil rights when he dragged the man out of his vehicle and struck him with his badge after a high-speed car chase, prosecutors said.
Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella, 52, was also found guilty of a federal firearms charge and was taken into custody by U.S. Marshals after the verdict. He could face a total of up to 17 years in prison on the two counts.
According to a federal indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, Rodella was not wearing his uniform and was brandishing a pistol when he and his 26-year-old son confronted the motorist on March 11.
Prosecutors said the pair tried to get the driver to fight them before chasing him when he drove off, and eventually dragging him out of his vehicle. When the motorist asked to see Rodella's identification, the indictment said, Rodella slammed his sheriff's badge into the victim's face.
"Sheriff Rodella chose to abuse his power rather than uphold his oath to protect the public," Damon Martinez, U.S. Attorney for the district of New Mexico, said in a statement.
"I commend the victim who testified ... for having the courage to step forward and assert his civil rights," he said.
Rodella has had a particularly colorful and controversial career spanning almost three decades. The Albuquerque Journal said that as a state police officer in the 1980s he was disciplined for marijuana use, physical abuse and improper use of a weapon. And in 1993 he allegedly fired a gun at a deer decoy set up by state game wardens to catch poachers.
In 2008 the New Mexico Supreme Court fired him from his post as a magistrate court judge in Rio Arriba County for "willful misconduct" after he involved himself in a friend's drunken driving case, and also promised to rule in favor of campaign supporters if they faced any litigation in his court
No date for sentencing has yet been set for Rodella. He faces up to 10 years in prison on the civil rights charge, and a mandatory seven years in prison on the firearms charge, to be served consecutive to any sentence imposed on the first charge.
(Reporting by Joseph Kolb; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)