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Civil Reservation for Guilty Plea of Traffic Violation in Municipal Court Must be Asserted at Time of Plea

By on March 27, 2015 in Blog with 0 Comments

Our court rules permit a municipal court judge to accept a guilty plea of a traffic offense with a “civil reservation.” If the judge accepts this form of plea, that guilty plea  cannot be introduced into evidence in any related civil proceeding. In other words, if a personal injury lawsuit is filed in the future, the plaintiff cannot use that guilty plea as an admission of wrongdoing that caused the accident. In  Maida v. Kuskin, a NJ Supreme Court case decided on March 19, 2015, the Court addressed this municipal court practice in the context of a defendant who did not request the civil reservation until later in the day, after his guilty plea had been accepted.

The plaintiff Bruce Maida was hit by an SUV while walking across a crosswalk. The plaintiff and his parents walked home and called the police to report the accident. The police identified the defendant as the driver and issued him a summons for leaving the scene of the accident and the failure to report the accident. Thereafter, the defendant appeared in municipal court and pled guilty to the latter offense. Later that day, the defendant’s attorney wrote a letter to the court asking to confirm that the plea was with a civil reservation. The judge then entered an order, permitting the civil reservation to be used at the trial.

Subsequently, the plaintiff filed a personal injury suit and the defendant denied that there was an accident. The plaintiff filed a motion to strike the civil reservation. The trial court struck the civil reservation because it was not made in open court at the time the plea was accepted. The Appellate Division, however, reversed. Surmising that the civil reservation was a material aspect of the guilty plea, the appeals court suggested that the trial judge should have permitted the defendant to withdraw his plea.

The Supreme Court reviewed the whole process and found that a request for a civil reservation must be made in open court and contemporaneously with the court’s acceptance of defendant’s guilty plea. If the prosecutor or the victim demonstrate 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.

The Court held that the municipal court judge must not accept a guilty plea until he has first addressed the defendant personally, determined that the plea is made voluntarily and that there is a factual basis for the plea.

While the Supreme Court disapproved of the Appellate Division’s ruling that a civil reservation may be requested after the plea is entered, it ended up affirming the decision on another basis. In this case, the defendant pled guilty to failure to report a motor vehicle accident. The Court pointed out that, whether or not a motor vehicle accident is timely reported, has no bearing on the issue of negligent operation of a motor vehicle. Thus, the guilty plea to this particular offense should not have been admitted in the trial of the matter.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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