New Mexico sheriff pleads not guilty after being accused of shoving badge in driver's face



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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — A northern New Mexico sheriff pleaded not guilty Monday to federal charges stemming from an off-duty traffic stop that authorities say left a driver injured.

Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella was arraigned on charges of deprivation of rights and brandishing a firearm in a superseding indictment filed a month after he was first charged in the March encounter.

Flanked by his wife and family, Rodella said he understood the new indictment and left without speaking to reporters.

Robert Gorence, Rodella's attorney, denied the allegations against his client and said the case is largely based on a dispute with U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez over U.S. Forest Service patrols in northern New Mexico.

Authorities said Rodella was in plainclothes when he pulled over a motorist in March, jumped out of his personal SUV with a gun, and shoved his badge in the motorist's face. The driver was dragged from his car and thrown to the ground, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said Rodella has been involved in at least three other questionable traffic stops.

During the hearing on Monday, Gorence questioned a New Mexico State Police sergeant about why he changed a report of the stop. The question was part of an effort by Gorence to disqualify Martinez from the case, arguing that federal authorities tried to influence the investigation.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.

A federal judge on Monday denied a request from Gorence that jurors be drawn from northern New Mexico — an area where Rodella maintains support.

The court ruled that Rodella couldn't show how drawing a jury from central New Mexico created "an unfair and unreasonable underrepresentation because of systematic exclusion."

The case against Rodella has led to calls from some elected officials for him to resign.

Rodella has responded by asking state police to investigate various allegations of corruption by county officials. He said he had no plans to step down.

FBI agents raided Rodella's home in June 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.


Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras .

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