When his son-in-law was killed in a car accident, Dick Coffinger wanted to represent his daughter in seeking restitution. The court wouldn’t let him, so he got the law changed.
They were just a couple of ordinary guys on the way to work early on a Monday morning.
Jeffrey Roof told his wife he would pick up the dry cleaning at a shop at 12th Street and Northern Avenue in Phoenix, and at about 7 a.m., he was pulling out of the shop’s driveway, making a left turn across several lanes of traffic, headed toward State Route 51 when the stoplight changed.
Jeffrey Meyn was driving west on Northern in his pickup truck when the light turned yellow. Two cars had already stopped, but Meyn kept going and he T-boned Roof’s Mazda right on the driver’s door.
Roof died at the hospital. It was June 25, 2012.
Meyn was charged with manslaughter, but was able to plead guilty to the lesser charge of negligent homicide. And he stipulated to a prison term of a year and a half and restitution that would not exceed $1 million.
He did the time, but the matter of restitution became a longer battle.
Restitution is court-ordered compensation in a criminal case; it’s part of the sentencing process to make the parties whole, to rehabilitate the defendant and to compensate the victim for his or her financial loss.
The million-dollar cap is not uncommon to the kind of boilerplate language found in plea agreements. Collecting a million dollars as restitution, on the other hand, is not common; it’s more like the money that might be awarded in a wrongful-death lawsuit in civil court.
But wrongful-death awards can be sidestepped by bankruptcy. Restitution cannot.
It took four and a half years, but the attorney representing Roof’s wife, Lindsay, got the million. Or rather he got a court ruling ordering Meyn to pay it.
That attorney, Richard Coffinger, is also Lindsay’s father.
And to get the restitution award, he first had to get state law changed.
‘Had to give back’
Jeff Roof grew up in Phoenix, and as soon as he graduated from Washington High School, he enlisted in the Marines. Roof survived three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and learned a trade in avionics, servicing aircraft, sometimes while under enemy fire.
“To me he was like Pat Tillman, and had to give back,” Coffinger said.
And his own father, Jim Roof, said that his son volunteered for two of his deployments because he wasn’t yet married and wanted to let his married comrades stay stateside.
Roof returned from the war in 2006 and spent a couple more years in the reserves. He met Lindsay Coffinger while out with friends. They dated about two years and married in 2010. About a year later, Lindsay gave birth to their daughter, Samantha.
Family photos show a beautiful happy threesome in mother, father and baby girl.
Roof worked at Home Depot for a while, then got a part-time position at an avionics firm that serviced US Airways planes. It went well; within four years, he had gone from a temp worker to general manager.
He and Lindsay bought a house and were fixing it up, planning to move into it in June 2012. On the Sunday night before he was killed, Jeff ended a conversation with his father Jim by saying, “We’ll be talking a lot this next week.”
The next day he was dead. He was 29.
Taking a plea deal
Jeff Meyn, 47, also grew up in Phoenix. At the time of the accident, he was a single dad with two sons, a $200,000-a-year-job selling advertising graphics and a big house near the Phoenix Mountains Preserve in north-central Phoenix.
He recounted the events of June 25, 2012: “I was on my way to work on the same route I took every day for over a decade,” he said.
He drove down the 51, exited at Northern Avenue and approached the traffic signal at 12th Street.
“The light turned yellow, and I accelerated through it,” he said.
Roof, he claimed, was making an illegal left turn across two lanes of oncoming westbound traffic, and Meyn could not stop because of his speed.
But Meyn stayed at the scene, and after several hours, he claims, a police officer told him that he was free to leave because he was not at fault for the accident.
Neither man was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“I thought it was all done,” Meyn said. But he retained an attorney, and he cooperated with the investigation. He even testified before a Maricopa County grand jury.
His attorney, Stacy Hyder, sent a letter to the prosecutor saying that in the event Meyn was charged, he would self-surrender. And she told prosecutors that if charges were in the offing, they should be misdemeanors.
Then, on Dec. 31, 2012, Meyn’s 6-year-old son came into the house to tell him that a man outside said that someone had scratched Meyn’s truck, which was parked on the street.
But when Meyn went outside to see, two vehicles swooped in on him, and Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies jumped out with weapons drawn, ordered him to his knees and then handcuffed him.
“I’ve never even been related to anyone in handcuffs,” he said.
The grand jury had indicted Meyn on charges of manslaughter. After conferring with Hyder, his attorney, in January 2014, he agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of negligent homicide.
In Maricopa County, about 98 percent of all criminal cases end in plea agreements, because, according to common wisdom, the local juries are quick to convict. Manslaughter could have brought a sentence of seven to 15 years in prison.
“The reason I took the plea is because if I lost, I would have gotten so much time I wouldn’t see my children grow up,” Meyn said.
The plea agreement also said that Meyn could be held responsible for restitution to the victims in an amount not to exceed $1 million.
Meyn was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He was locked up on March 31, 2014, and with good time, he was released 13 months later on June 26, 2015.
Meanwhile, Hyder and Roof’s father-in-law, Dick Coffinger, battled it out over restitution.
Advocate for the victim
Dick Coffinger is another lifelong Arizonan, a tall and lanky man who favors dark suits with turquoise cowboy boots. A criminal defense attorney in private practice, he works out of an office in a historic Glendale bank building. Inside, there are rows of broken jukeboxes, which he collects, an old-fashioned snooker table covered in clear plastic and piled high with papers and other detritus of collectibles.
Coffinger also serves on the board of governors of the State Bar of Arizona.
Shortly after Meyn was indicted, Coffinger filed his “notice of appearance” in Meyn’s criminal case on behalf of his daughter. It is not uncommon for victims in criminal cases to be represented by counsel. He also filed a memorandum in the case to note that the family of Jeff Roof had suffered an economic loss of more than $1.5 million.
That figure included Roof’s “future lost earnings,” in other words, how much money he would likely have earned over the course of his lifetime if he had not been killed.
Hyder countered in court filings that such calculations were more the province of civil lawsuits, specifically wrongful-death lawsuits. But Coffinger cited a 2004 case in which a Superior Court judge had allowed the calculations in a first-degree murder case.
One of the victim’s attorneys in that case was Bill Montgomery, who would later be elected Maricopa County attorney.
Coffinger didn’t want to file a wrongful-death suit.
“It would have been dischargeable debt,” he told The Arizona Republic. Meyn could just declare bankruptcy in a civil suit. But he could not sidestep restitution in criminal court.
Besides, Coffinger reasoned, Meyn’s insurance had paid out just $15,000, minimum coverage, and a county victims’ reimbursement fund had paid another $25,000, but Meyn had paid nothing directly to the victim.
“We wanted to get restitution for the full cost of the loss,” he said.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Bruce Cohen ruled that the court could consider future lost earnings over Hyder’s objections.
Then Coffinger asked to be able to represent his daughter in the restitution hearing. Cohen said no.
At issue was the threat that such interference by the victim’s attorney could set precedent for victims calling the shots in the guilt-or-innocence portion of a criminal trial. But Coffinger felt that if he had to pay for his own expert witness in the restitution hearing, then he wanted to be able to choose his own attorney to present the evidence: himself.
However, the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld Cohen’s ruling in January 2015.
Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Peter Swann wrote, “Though the prosecutor owes duties to victims, the prosecutor’s responsibility is to represent society’s interests and ‘see that justice is done on behalf of both the victim and the defendants.’ ”
“Unlike a prosecutor, a victim’s personal counsel serves solely as an advocate for the victim,” the ruling continued. “The purpose of restitution proceedings would be subverted if the victim’s counsel were allowed to take the prosecutor’s place — such an arrangement would essentially transform a criminal sentencing functioning into a civil damages trial.”
Coffinger summed it up: “You’ve got a right to hire an attorney at your own expense. You have a right to restitution. But you don’t have a right to present your own claim.”
Coffinger lost that battle to Hyder. But only temporarily.
The role of the victim
Coffinger was not alone in his belief that he should be allowed to handle restitution on his daughter’s behalf. He shared an opinion with County Attorney Montgomery, who is a strong advocate for victims’ rights.
“When Dick wanted to argue at the next hearing for restitution, I didn’t have a problem with it,” Montgomery said. “I think the judge at that hearing did not understand the role of the victim in a restitution hearing.”
Furthermore, Montgomery said, “When I appear at a restitution hearing, I’m not advocating for anyone … The role of the prosecutor was misunderstood at the Court of Appeals.”
Restitution, he added, is not punishment, per se. It’s rehabilitation, and it covers economic loss, but not “pain and suffering” or punitive damages as could be sought in civil court.
Coffinger took it to the state Legislature, and Rep. Eddie Farnsworth introduced a bill in 2016 that added a paragraph to the statutes on criminal restitution.
It read: “Notwithstanding any other law and without limiting any rights and powers of the victim, the victim has the right to present evidence or information and to make an argument to the court, personally or through counsel, at any proceeding to determine the amount of restitution …”
Coffinger went back to court. By then, Judge Cohen had been rotated to a new assignment and the case passed to a new judge, John Rea.
Hyder tried to get sanctions against Coffinger and the prosecutor on the case for colluding on restitution in violation of Judge Cohen’s orders, but to no avail.
On Dec. 29, 2016, Superior Court Judge John Rea awarded $960,000 — $1 million minus the $40,000 already paid — to Lindsay Roof. The ruling was published Jan. 5.
‘Barely making it’
Jeff Meyn does not know how he is going to pay a million dollars over his lifetime. Likely a monthly amount will be required of him.
He lost his job, his house, his vehicle when he went to prison. He has found new employment since he got out, but at a lower rate of pay than he was earning before.
“I’m barely making it now,” he said. “I work full time and take care of kids.”
He is understanding of the victims’ plight.
“My dad was killed by a drunk driver when I was 10,” he said. “So I’ve been there. I’m happy to help the family.
“A very good man lost his life. A little girl will never know her daddy. A woman lost the love of her life. And I was part of this.”
“But the bottom line,” he said, “is it was a car accident.”