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MPD, Shelby Co. Sheriff will not tow uninsured drivers until 2017

Published: Dec. 8, 2015 at 8:55 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 9, 2015 at 3:25 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Neither the Memphis Police Department nor the Shelby County Sheriff's Office will start towing the cars of uninsured drivers Jan. 1, even as the uninsured driver whose case inspired the towing law is now a convicted felon.

Tuesday, 26-year-old Roderick Maggett of Cordova, Tennessee, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide in the 2014 car crash that killed 30-year-old James Lee Atwood, Jr., of Memphis. In exchange for no jail time, Maggett agreed to six years probation. During those six years, he will not be allowed to have a driver's license. He must keep an 8 p.m. curfew, hold a full-time job, attend victim impact panels, perform 300 hours of community service and pay Atwood's family $30,399 in restitution.

Maggett tried to dodge our cameras and claim we didn't have the facts on his case, although we compiled accident records, insurance records, police records and a Shelby County grand jury indictment -- all indicating he was uninsured and asleep at the wheel when he crossed the center line on Shelby Drive in Southeast Memphis and killed Atwood, Jr. on July 1, 2014.

Those same records also indicated Shelby County Sheriff's deputies pulled him over earlier that same day for a minor traffic violation and found him driving his sister's uninsured SUV without proof of insurance. Deputies cited him and let him go, only to crash into Atwood Jr. seven hours later while still driving his sister's uninsured vehicle without proof of insurance.

"Mr. Maggett, he is not a person who decided to go out and harm somebody, but he did harm somebody," Marty McAfee, Maggett's attorney, said. Maggett had no prior felony record. "Should he have had insurance? Of course. Nothing we can do in this courtroom will make that better for the Atwood family."

"At 26 years old, it may not mean anything to him right now, but he will be a different man when he is 50," said Atwood, Jr.'s mother Rhonda Cochran. "He's going to have different values, and he's going to have different things he wants to do, and he's not going to be able to."

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 Tennessee Financial Responsibility Act of 1977. That law has required every Tennessee driver to carry a minimum of liability auto insurance coverage.

The James Lee Atwood, Jr., law triples the fines for violating that 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 Tuesday, spokespersons for both the Memphis Police and Shelby County sheriff's deputies confirmed they will hold off on towing uninsured vehicles until the revenue department implements the statewide tracking database.

"The key piece to effective enforcement by towing is the revenue department's creation of an online database which will instantly confirm whether a driver has insurance, and sheriff's deputies will be confident that the vehicle is being lawfully towed," said Shelby County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Chip Washington.

"The online database is not online at this time; however, MPD is committed to the implementation of policy that allows for the full enforcement of the law," said MPD spokesperson Officer Louis Brownlee. "We are currently drafting policy and awaiting the database to come online."

Towing service owner/operator Scott Westbrook of Westbrook Automotive, Inc., in Southeast Memphis is a member of the MPD's towing rotation system. He said the police impound lot is already full to capacity with vehicles that have either been abandoned or been impounded from crime scenes. He said he's not sure whether the department can accommodate towing uninsured vehicles.

"Even if they let them go to the private lots, I just don't know if even those lots have the capacity, especially as many uninsured drivers as there are in the city of Memphis," Westbrook said.

Bennita Wade, a Memphis-based independent insurance agent, said uninsured motorists make up 30 to 40 percent of all claims in Shelby County.

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