'Clerical error' delays towing cars of TN's uninsured drivers - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

'Clerical error' delays towing cars of TN's uninsured drivers

'Clerical error' delays towing cars of TN's uninsured drivers

(Source: WMC Action News 5) (Source: WMC Action News 5)

Tennessee law enforcement will not tow the vehicles of drivers cited for driving without insurance until January.

Tennessee Rep. William Lamberth, (R) Sumner County, the chief architect of the get-tough law on uninsured drivers that took effect July 1, said a clerical error in its final draft has delayed police discretion to tow their vehicles until January 1.

"My intention was for towing to go into effect July 1," Lamberth said. "The delay to January was either a clerical error or something put in in the last minute to give law enforcement more time to develop towing policies."

WMC Action News 5 contacted every municipal law enforcement agency in Shelby County, as well as the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Each declined to confirm whether it will start towing uninsured drivers January 1.

Records from the Memphis City Court Clerk's Office revealed in 2014, 30,186 drivers were cited for driving without insurance or without proof of insurance in Memphis. 39 percent paid the fine without court costs, while only seven percent paid the fine with court costs. 21 percent were dismissed with no fine or court costs. 33 percent were either dismissed with court costs or dropped for lack of evidence.

The towing law was named after James Lee Atwood, Jr., of Memphis. Last July, an uninsured driver crashed into and killed the 30-year-old on Shelby Dr. in Southeast Memphis. The driver, 25-year-old Roderick Maggett of Cordova, Tennessee, had been pulled over and cited for driving without insurance just seven hours earlier, but was allowed to drive off because law enforcement did not have the authority to tow his vehicle. A Shelby County grand jury indicted Maggett in April for vehicular homicide. The case is pending.

Atwood, Jr.'s mother, Rhonda Cochran, said she believes Tennessee courts will dismiss more drivers cited with no proof of insurance because she thinks judges feel sorry for them. "They're sympathizers, I think, because they say, 'Well, you know, they can't afford insurance,'" she said. 

"We look at a person's record, and if they've had a history of getting insurance and letting it lapse or canceling the policy, we are going to come down on them pretty hard," said Judge Tarik Sugarmon, administrative judge of Memphis Municipal Court. "With tickets that are dismissed outright, usually it's a situation where the citizen has gotten a ticket, but either the insurance card has expired or they didn't have it with them at the time, but they still had insurance in effect. So in those cases, we'll dismiss it because it was simply an omission."

The omission of police towing authority until January has frustrated Michael Stephens.

The Bartlett, Tennessee, man was working as an AT&T lineman, putting out orange safety cones around his company truck on the side of New Brunswick Road Jan. 9, when Pizarro Wesley of Memphis veered off the road and right into Stephens as he stood by his truck.

The impact severed Stephens' right leg below the knee.

Wesley, a Shelby County deputy jailer, pleaded guilty to failure to control his vehicle, driving on a suspended license and driving without insurance. He paid a $250 fine, got his license reinstated -- and he got to keep his job as a deputy jailer.

Stephens is worried about what may happen between now and January 1. "More people are going to get hurt, and more people are going to get killed, and there's going to be more people out there who endanger the innocent people like us that don't break the law," he said. 

The law that took effect July 1 triples the fines for violating Tennessee's financial responsibility law (proof of insurance) from $100 to $300 in state courts with jury authority. It also authorizes the Tennessee Department of Revenue to implement a statewide insurance verification database by 2017 that will track proof of insurance through vehicle registration. 

As far as towing the vehicles of uninsured drivers, the law is designed to give law enforcement flexibility. Its current language lets police decide the circumstances in which they will tow an uninsured driver's vehicle, including none at all.

"It's our desire for every single Tennessee police department to have a towing policy on uninsured drivers come January," Lamberth said. "If they do not, then we are willing to take other legislative action, including the possibility of requiring police departments to tow drivers cited with violating the financial responsibility law."

Copyright 2015 WMC Action News 5. All rights reserved.

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