Thursday, January 14, 2016

Former Sheriff's Conviction for Depriving a Person of His Constitututional Rights Affirmed

U.S. v. Rodella, 2015 WL 6735896 (11/4/15) (N.M.) (Published) - The government accused former Rio Arriba County Sheriff Rodella of having his son chase down Mr. Tafoya as part of road-rage and eventually jumping into Mr. Tafoya's passenger seat and threatening him with a gun. Following the arrival of sheriff's department officers, Mr. Tafoya spent several days in jail. Sheriff Rodella was convicted of depriving Mr. Tafoya of his rights protected by the 4th Amendment not to be subjected to unreasonable seizure by a law enforcement officer under two theories:(1) Sheriff Rodella unlawfully arrested Mr. Tafoya and (2) he used unreasonable force in the course of arresting Mr. Tafoya. The 10th holds there was sufficient evidence to support both theories.

As for the unlawful-arrest theory, the sheriff "forfeited" [by which the 10th means "waived"] his argument that Mr. Tafoya could be arrested for the wrong placement of his license plate or expired temporary tags by not raising those possibilities below. There was sufficient evidence the sheriff was not in uniform and therefore could not legally detain or arrest Mr. Tafoya for a traffic violation. Plus the jury could reasonably find Mr. Tafoya's flight and any reckless driving were provoked by the sheriff. Officers can't improperly provoke flight, including by putting a person in reasonable fear of physical harm. As for the excessive force theory, Sheriff Rodella's notion that more than de minimis injury is required is only true with respect to handcuffing. Plus, the 10th footnotes there was more than de minis injury due to the emotional trauma caused by Sheriff Rodella's conduct.

The district court allowed in 3 prior incidents for 404(b) purposes. (1) a woman testified the sheriff tailgated her for at least 5 minutes, after he passed her, she flashed her high beams at him, he came back and stopped her and engaged in an angry argument with her. (2) A man testified the plain-clothed sheriff pulled him over after he passed the sheriff's SUV, in response to the question: "Do you know why I pulled you over?" the civilian responded: "I don't even know who you are?" The civilian was unimpressed with the sheriff's driver's license, saying: "I've got one of those too." The sheriff became upset and threw his badge at the civilian. The sheriff said he pulled the civilian over for passing in a no-passing zone, but it turned out passing was legal there. (3) A woman testified the sheriff tailgated her and her husband, then entered the passing lane, pulled even with them and yelled out the window to "pull the f*** over. Now.." In plain clothes the sheriff lectured them in an aggressive manner: "You don't speed in my county." The 10th observes that 404(b) evidence is just fine if its admission is supported by "some propensity-free chain of reasoning." In this case, the 10th concedes, the jury could have inferred the improper conclusion that the sheriff possessed the character traits of anger issues and a need to exercise power over others. But importantly the jury was not required to make such inferences to also infer the sheriff purposely had his son drive in a threatening manner to provoke Mr. Tafoya into a disrespectful act, that the sheriff purposely intended to force Mr. Tafoya to submit to his authority and not to enforce any traffic law, and the sheriff knew that his identity as a law enforcement officer was not readily apparent to Mr. Tafoya until the end of the encounter. This is "logic" that "recognizes a prior act involving the same knowledge decreases the likelihood the sheriff lacked the requisite knowledge in committing the charged offense," says the 10th. So, the evidence proved willfulness. If you can distinguish this "logic" from using the evidence for propensity purposes, more power to you. The 10th rejects a 403 claim because the sheriff's alleged conduct towards Mr. Tafoya was more serious and prejudicial than the 404(b) conduct. Plus there was a "limiting" instruction, which "limited" the jury to considering the evidence for "motive, intent, plan, knowledge, absence of mistake or accident."

Relatedly, the 10th rejects a contention that the prosecutor in closing improperly encouraged the jury to use the 404(b) evidence for propensity purposes. (1) The 10th says it was okay to describe the sheriff as "a man who lets his distorted ego lead to aggression he cannot control." The prosecutor then referenced the first 404(b) testimony and contrasted the sheriff's ego with Mr. Tafoya's personality and demeanor. The prosecutor was just contrasting personalities and demeanors, the 10th explains, not seeking propensity inferences. (2) The 10th says referring to Mr. Tafoya's work with disabled adults had nothing to do with the 404(b) evidence and so was not improper (3) The prosecutor described the tailgating of Mr. Tafoya and then said: "Boy, is that familiar." Even if improper, the 10th concludes, no harm done, given the district court's cautioning instruction after the defense objected, the evidence against the sheriff, the rest of the proper closing remarks and the "limiting" instruction. (4) The prosecutor said: "Rodella was taught never to pull alongside a car like he did" in one of the 404(b) incidents. This was okay because the prosecutor was just saying the sheriff ignored his training on both occasions. That's not seeking a propensity inference, the 10th says. (5) The prosecutor said: "what about his other victims?" and then described each of the 404(b) incidents. This was proper explanation of using the evidence for the proper 404(b) purposes. (6) The 10th does find it was wrong to say during a description of one of the 404(b) incidents, that the sheriff's cowboy hat should have been black. But that was not prejudicial. (7) The prosecutor's reference to a 404(b) victim's emotional trauma to prove Mr. Tafoya's emotional trauma, to the extent it was improper, was not prejudicial, given the ample direct evidence of Mr. Tafoya's trauma. (8) The prosecutor said: "when you're thinking of Mr. Tafoya, I'm asking you to think about the [404(b) victims]. The 404(b) couple was upset. Rodella's not concerned about the 404(b) victims, certainly not Mr. Tafoya's. His ego trumps all." "Presumably," the 10th finds, those comments asked the jury to infer the sheriff acted willfully. So, based on that questionable presumption, the comments were proper.

Finally, the admission of training materials regarding how to pursue a vehicle were relevant to show the sheriff knew his pursuit of Mr. Tafoya was unlawful for a number of reasons and so his conduct was willful.