DENVER (AP) — An attorney for a former New Mexico sheriff who pulled a gun on a motorist and struck him with his badge told an appeals court on Tuesday that he was wrongfully convicted of rights violations because the driver suffered no serious emotional injuries.
The motorist said he feared for his life during the March 2014 encounter with then-Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella. Jurors found that while the driver wasn't physically injured, the bizarre, off-duty traffic stop left him emotionally scarred.
But Rodella's attorney, John Cline, said the man's injuries were only minor. A district judge should have told jurors that they had to find the motorist suffered more than just trivial injuries in order to convict Rodella, Cline said. The improper jury instructions caused an unfair trial, he said.
Rodella was sentenced in January to 10 years in federal prison for abusing the motorist, Michael Tafoya, in what prosecutors called a fit of road rage. Driving his personal SUV and wearing street clothes, Rodella followed 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. They argued Rodella was mad because the motorist had cut him off in traffic.
Rodella was convicted of brandishing a firearm and deprivation of rights.
Cline told the appeals court judges that the traffic stop was legal, in part because Tafoya was driving carelessly, and the sheriff was acting in the interest of public safety. Prosecutors failed to prove Rodella seriously injured Tafoya, who seemed more distraught about being jailed and separated from his car than the confrontation, Cline said.
Tafoya sobbed and showed signs of depression well after the encounter, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Pena said. Tafoya told jurors during the trial that he thought Rodella was going to kill him.
"It was patently excessive, making this young man feel like he was going to be executed," Pena said, arguing Tafoya's injuries were hardly minor.
Rodella wasn't present for the hearing, but the courtroom was packed with his supporters.
It could be months before the three-judge panel decides whether to overturn his conviction. But Judge Robert E. Bacharach questioned how Cline could believe Rodella's "extreme conduct" did not have a major impact on Tafoya.
"That would be a pretty harrowing thought, thinking someone was going to kill you and pointing a gun at your head," he said.
Rodella's conviction marked the end of his long, troubled career in politics and law enforcement.