A request for a civil reservation in municipal court must be made in open court. Maida v. Kuskin 221 N.J. 112 (N.J. 2015)
A request for a civil reservation in municipal court must be made in open court and contemporaneously with the court’s acceptance of defendant’s guilty plea. If the prosecutor or the victim demonstrates good cause, or the charge to which a defendant pleads guilty does not arise out of the same occurrence that is the subject of the civil proceeding, a civil reservation order may not be entered. Bruce Maida v. Michael Kuskin (A-50-13) (073427)
Decided March 19, 2015
CUFF, P.J.A.D. (temporarily assigned), writing for a unanimous Court.
In this appeal, the Court considers the circumstances under which a defendant can request a civil reservation. A civil reservation is a municipal court practice that permits a municipal court judge to order that a guilty plea not be used as evidence in any related civil proceeding.
The Maidas subsequently filed a complaint seeking damages. They claimed that plaintiff suffered serious injuries requiring multiple surgical procedures and that his wife suffered severe and permanent emotional distress from witnessing the accident. Defendant filed an answer in which he denied that he was negligent and, in response to an interrogatory, asserted that “there was no accident.” The Maidas filed a motion to strike the civil reservation that the municipal court had entered. The trial court initially denied their motion, but then reconsidered and granted the motion. The trial court opined that a civil reservation, as authorized by Rule 7:6-2(a)(1) of the Rules of Court Governing the Courts of the State of New Jersey (Rules), must be requested in open court at the time the guilty plea is entered. Finding that had not occurred in this case, the trial court permitted use of the guilty plea at trial.
In an unpublished decision, a panel of the Appellate Division reversed. The panel determined that Rule 7:6-2(a)(1) does not require that the request for a civil reservation be made in open court at the time the guilty plea is accepted. Surmising that the civil reservation was a material aspect of the guilty plea, the panel suggested that the trial judge should have permitted defendant to withdraw his plea. In addition, the panel held that a civil reservation should be granted as a matter of course any time after entry of the plea, unless there is an objection. The panel further observed that there were other reasons to exclude the guilty plea here, including: 1) the absence of a factual basis provided by defendant, 2) the prejudicial impact of a guilty plea, and 3) the absence of any probative value of the guilty plea to a central issue in this case, which was whether a motor vehicle accident occurred at all. This Court granted the Maidas’ petition for certification. Maida v. Kuskin, 217 N.J. 50 (2014).
HELD: A request for a civil reservation in municipal court must be made in open court and contemporaneously with the court’s acceptance of defendant’s guilty plea. If the prosecutor or the victim demonstrates good cause, or the charge to which a defendant pleads guilty does not arise out of the same occurrence that is the subject of the civil proceeding, a civil reservation order may not be entered.
1. Defendant pled guilty to one of the more than 2 million non-DWI traffic cases filed in the municipal courts of this State in 2010. The Rules, particularly Part 7, address all facets of municipal court practice. Rule 7:6-2(a)(1) permits a municipal court judge to accept a guilty plea, but the judge may not do so without first addressing the defendant personally, determining that the plea is made voluntarily with understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea, and determining that there is a factual basis for the plea. If a civil complaint has been filed, or one is anticipated, the court may, on defendant’s request, order that the plea not be used as evidence in a civil proceeding. R. 7:6-2(a)(1). Guilty pleas that do not follow this basic structure are subject to reversal. A municipal court order indicating that the plea not be evidential in any civil proceeding is entered as a matter of course unless the prosecutor or the victim objects. If the prosecutor or victim objects to a civil reservation or non-evidential order, the objecting party must show good cause for withholding the order.
2. State v. Haulaway, Inc., 257 N.J. Super. 506 (App. Div. 1992), provides guidance on what constitutes good cause to support entry or denial of a civil reservation. In Haulaway, defendants entered guilty pleas with knowledge that the State would object to entry of a civil reservation order. The Appellate Division determined that good cause did not exist to support the civil reservations defendants requested because they pled guilty knowing that the State might object to a no-civil-use order and without conditioning their pleas on the entry of such an order. Similarly, this Court addressed the admissibility of a guilty plea to careless driving in a subsequent civil proceeding. Eaton v. Eaton, 119 N.J. 628 (1990). There, the driver of a car involved in a single-car accident pled guilty to careless driving without an appearance in municipal court. A passenger in the car died from injuries suffered in the crash. In the wrongful death action, the driver contended that her guilty plea to careless driving was not admissible. This Court disagreed and emphasized that a guilty plea is only evidence of negligence and certainly “not conclusive proof of the facts underlying the offense.” Absent a properly entered civil reservation, a person who enters a guilty plea to a traffic offense may be confronted with the factual basis for it in a civil action arising from the same occurrence that triggered the issuance of the motor vehicle charge. If a person contested the charge, a conviction following a trial is not admissible because the contesting defendant never admitted guilt.
3. Here, defendant was charged with an offense that requires a person involved in a motor vehicle accident in which someone is injured to file a written report within ten days of the accident. The report is forwarded to the Motor Vehicle Commission, but neither the report, nor any statement contained in the report, is admissible as evidence in a subsequent proceeding for any purpose other than to establish the fact that the report was submitted. The fact of filing, filing late, or not filing at all has no bearing on the issue of negligence in a subsequent civil proceeding and is, therefore, inadmissible in any such proceeding.
4. In sum, a guilty plea to a traffic offense that occurs in open court must be accompanied by a factual statement given by the defendant. A person who pleads guilty to a traffic offense may request an order that prevents admission of the plea in any civil proceeding arising from the same occurrence that precipitated the motor vehicle charge and that request must occur in open court. The prosecutor or a person injured in the accident may object to such an order, but must demonstrate good cause to bar entry thereof. If good cause is demonstrated, or the charge to which a defendant pleads guilty does not arise out of the same occurrence that is the subject of the civil proceeding, a civil reservation order may not be entered. Further, such an order should not be entered when the conduct encompassed by the traffic offense bears no relation to the subsequent civil proceeding. Finally, if the guilty plea is entered without a court appearance, a defendant may not pursue a civil reservation order.
5. The municipal court proceeding in this appeal suffered from several flaws. Contrary to Rule 7:6-2(a)(1), defendant pled guilty to a motor vehicle charge without providing a factual basis. That precluded the municipal court from determining whether the plea was knowing and voluntary and whether it was factually supported. Further, the civil reservation order should not have been entered after the close of the municipal court proceedings because the request must be made in open court and contemporaneously with the plea. Moreover, here the municipal court judge entered a civil reservation order for a motor vehicle offense that would have been inadmissible in any civil proceeding based on the same occurrence because whether a person files the report of the accident required by the statute bears no relevance to whether the charged person operated a motor vehicle in a negligent manner on the day of the alleged incident, or operated a motor vehicle at all. 6. The Court disapproves of the Appellate Division’s ruling that a civil reservation need not be requested contemporaneously with the entry of the plea. The Court affirms, however, because whether a person submits a report of a motor vehicle accident timely, belatedly, or not at all bears no relevance to the issue of negligent operation of a motor vehicle.