Cordova man to plead guilty, avoid jail time in landmark uninsured driver case

Cordova man to plead guilty, avoid jail time in landmark uninsured driver case
Picture of the crash from July 1, 2014. (Photo Source: Chopper 5)
Picture of the crash from July 1, 2014. (Photo Source: Chopper 5)

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A Cordova, Tennessee, man will plead guilty in the case that spawned Tennessee's new get-tough law on uninsured drivers.

His attorney confirmed 26-year-old Roderick Maggett will plead guilty December 8 to vehicular homicide in exchange for no jail time. The terms of the plea agreement have not been finalized, but Rhonda Cochran, the mother of the man Maggett killed, said they would include six years probation, six years of community service, mandatory attendance at crash victim impact classes, and no diversion.

"Meaning he will always be known as a felon," Cochran said. "And he won't be allowed to have a driver's license for six years."

"We do have the terms of a negotiated plea set out," said Marty McAfee, Maggett's attorney. "We will soon set those out as part of probation, and we're just trying to hammer out a few final details." Records indicated Maggett has no prior felony record.

On July 1, 2014, Maggett -- without auto insurance and driving his sister's uninsured Chevy Trailblazer -- was westbound on Shelby Dr. in Southeast Memphis. Around 4 p.m., he crossed the center line and crashed head-on into 30-year-old James Lee Atwood, Jr.'s insured Lexus. The crash killed Atwood, Jr., instantly.

According to the accident report, Maggett was not wearing a seat belt. He also had an unrestrained 6-year-old in the back seat. The report indicated an adult passenger in the front seat told officers on the scene that both Maggett and he "dozed off."

"How does that happen?" asked Cochran. "You've got two grown people in the front seat, in the middle of the afternoon, and they're both sleeping?"

Memphis police arrested and charged Maggett with vehicular homicide, violation of Tennessee's financial responsibility (proof of insurance) law, and violation of child restraint. In April, a Shelby County grand jury indicted Maggett on vehicular homicide and reckless endangerment charges. 

What the arresting officers didn't know is Shelby County sheriff's deputies pulled Maggett over earlier that same day and cited him for violation of the Tennessee financial responsibility law. Since 1977, that law has required Tennessee drivers to carry a minimum of liability insurance.

Without the authority to detain Maggett or his vehicle, officers let him drive off -- only to crash into and kill Atwood Jr. seven hours later while still driving without insurance. "Had he been taken off the road that day for the exact same thing that he had been pulled over for earlier, he would not have been on the road that day to hit and kill my brother," Caleb Atwood said. "People who drive around without insurance are probably the most dangerous. It's time to tow them."

The Maggett case is what spurred Tennessee lawmakers in July to pass the most aggressive package of penalties against the state's uninsured drivers since the 1977 mandate.

The James Lee Atwood, Jr., law triples the fines for violating Tennessee's financial responsibility law 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. Those drivers whose registration reveals they do not carry insurance can face the revocation of their registration.

The law also gives every Tennessee police department the authority and discretion to tow the vehicles of drivers who violate the financial responsibility law. But a clerical error in the final draft of the law delayed that towing authority until January 1.

"It's our desire for every single Tennessee police department to have a towing policy on uninsured drivers come January," said Tennessee Rep. William Lamberth, (R) Sumner County, the chief architect of the new insurance law. "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."

After waiting 17 months, witnessing a grand jury indictment, going through countless court appearances, and seeing law passed in her son's name since, Cochran said it's time Maggett pleaded guilty. "This has gone on too long," she said. "If he's going to plead guilty, he just needs to go ahead and do it."

Maggett has declined every request for an interview, referring all questions to his attorney.

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