BAY CITY, MI — A Kentucky man has been ordered to pay fines for having THC in his system when a vehicle he was driving crashed and killed his teenage passenger on the Fourth of July. He avoided a stiffer penalty as investigators found the substance did not contribute to the collision.
Joseph H. Cozart Jr., 26, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, appeared via Zoom before Bay County District Judge Timothy J. Kelly for sentencing. Cozart in December pleaded no contest to one count of operating a motor vehicle with the presence of a controlled substance-marijuana. In exchange, the prosecution agreed to dismiss a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.
Both of those charges are misdemeanors punishable by up to 93 days in jail and a $500 fine.
The charges stem from a crash that happened the evening of July 4 on southbound I-75 near Beaver Road in Kawkawlin Township. Cozart was driving a 2010 Chevrolet Silverado pickup that contained 14-year-old Sterling resident AJ Andrew Jeffs as a passenger, police said.
Bay County Sheriff Troy R. Cunningham previously told MLive the truck sustained a blown tire and Jeffs was ejected from the truck and suffered fatal injuries.
“This is an example of a very tragic incident,” said defense attorney Matthew L. Reyes. “The thorough investigation that took place over months into the cause and how the accident happened clearly revealed … a massive tire failure on the vehicle that the defendant did not own and was borrowing at the time is what caused the vehicle to roll over. As a result of the rollover of the vehicle, the young man lost his life. The Bay County Prosecutor’s Office, I think, did a very thorough job and ultimately decided the resolution in this matter was that Mr. Cozart would enter a plea of no contest to operating while having the presence of THC in his system and Mr. Cozart did not have a medical marijuana card.”
THC is the psychoactive substance in marijuana.
“Mr. Cozart takes responsibility for having the presence of THC in his system, but to determine that somehow this contributed to the tragic result, I think is inaccurate,” Reyes said.
Reyes described Cozart as a “hard-working guy” who has lived in Kentucky for years. He took issue with presentence report that recommended Cozart receive the maximum jail sentence and asked the judge to fashion a sentence based on facts rather than emotions.
“I would like to say that my thoughts and my prayers are with that family every day,” Cozart said. “That accident, it was very serious and it’s something that’s affected me tremendously. I just want to say that my thoughts and prayers are with the family.”
Kelly ended up ordered Cozart to pay $725 in court fines and costs and gave him credit for one days served in jail. The judge also ordered Cozart pay a fine of $700 in an unrelated probation violation matter. Subtracting what Cozart had posted to be freed on bond, he still owes $147, which the judge ordered he pay within 30 days.
“This was truly a very tragic situation and I would concur with Mr. Reyes,” Kelly said. “Nothing I can see in this record shows me that Mr. Cozart was the cause of that.”
A second passenger in the July 4 crash, age 15, was also injured and was taken to University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor for treatment.
Jeffs, the other teen passenger, and Cozart had been heading south after spending the day in northern Michigan, Cunningham has said.
Court records list Cozart as residing in Rockfield, Kentucky.
Jeffs’ mother and the representative of his estate, Lisa Philopoulos, on Sept. 16 filed a lawsuit in Bay County Circuit Court against Cozart and the truck’s owner. The suit contains three counts — gross negligence and willful and wanton misconduct, owner liability act violations, and negligent entrustment. The first count is against Cozart, while the latter two are directed at the 35-year-old man who owned the truck.
“Defendant (the driver) owed a duty with ordinary care for the safety of the public and specifically to [Jeffs], which duty includes but is not limited to, obeying all laws, statutes, and city ordinances while driving subject vehicle on public roads,” the suit states.
The suit goes on to claim the truck’s owner gave the driver permission or implied consent to drive his Silverado at a time when he knew or should have known the driver was unqualified or incompetent to drive.
For each of the three counts, Philopoulos is seeking “an amount deemed fair and just and in excess of $25,000.”
The civil case is set for a settlement conference in Bay County Circuit Court on June 29.
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