Many New Jersey drivers that have been in an accident “know the deal.” If you head down to the local municipal court and plead guilty, the prosecutor may recommend a charge that carries no points and reduces your potential exposure to higher insurance premiums.
Many New Jersey residents, however, are probably surprised to learn that pleading guilty in traffic court can have repercussions in a civil lawsuit for personal injury that is later filed against them. Even a plea to a minor traffic offense is considered an admission under the New Jersey Rules of Evidence. As such, N.J.R.E. 803(b)(1) dictates that such statements will not be excluded as hearsay at the time of a subsequent civil trial.
For example, let’s say your son or daughter ran into another vehicle from behind. In New Jersey, your child may be charged with violating N.J.S.A. 39:4-97, and receive a ticket for careless driving after the accident. If they were to plead guilty to such a charge in municipal court, this admission may be used against them at the time of a later civil trial for personal injury. This would be true even if the other driver jammed on his or her brakes and caused the accident. Imagine how much easier a plaintiff’s burden of proving negligence becomes when the defendant has already admitted he was driving carelessly at the time of the accident!
To prevent this, a defendant in a traffic case can request a Civil Reservation, pursuant to New Jersey Court Rule 7:6-2(a)(1). A Civil Reservation, when requested properly, is simply a judicial order that prevents a plea of guilty to be used as evidence in any related civil proceeding.
The New Jersey Supreme Court, in Maida v. Kuskin, 221 N.J. 112 (N.J. 2015), recently handed down new guidelines on how a civil reservation must be requested in municipal court. In Maida v. Kuskin, the defendant fled the scene of an accident after hitting a pedestrian. The defendant was eventually found and charged with leaving the scene of an accident in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-129, and with failure to report an accident resulting in injury to a person in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-130. His attorney entered a guilty plea on defendant’s behalf at a municipal court proceeding. The defendant’s attorney later wrote the court a letter requesting that a civil reservation be placed on the plea, which was then entered.
Over a year later, a civil lawsuit was filed seeking compensatory damages for personal injuries received as a result of the motor vehicle accident. The injured party filed a motion to strike the civil reservation, which the trial court granted on the grounds the request was not properly made. The issue was ultimately appealed and the New Jersey Supreme Court clarified the law around requests for civil reservations. The Court explained that to obtain a civil reservation the defendant must make his request 1) in open court, and 2) contemporaneously with the guilty plea. The civil reservation can then be entered as a matter of law, unless the prosecutor or the victim objections. See State v. LaResca, 267 N.J. Super. 411, 421 (App. Div. 1993). 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.
Obtaining a civil reservation in municipal court is a procedure best handled by a New Jersey licensed attorney who is familiar with the implications municipal pleadings can have in subsequent civil lawsuits. The attorneys at Weir & Associates, L.L.C have experience in obtaining civil reservations in municipal court, as well as handing municipal court theft charges, possession of marijuana charges, possession of paraphernalia charges, speeding, careless driving, unsafe driving, and local ordinance violations.