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In New Jersey, most people who have an experience with the court system (other than jury duty) do so in one of 530 municipal courts throughout the State.  In 2014, over six million summonses, including some 2,868,471 non-DWI traffic matters, were filed in New Jersey municipal courts.  Thus, it’s very likely that if you are a New Jerseyan, you’ve been to a municipal court for something.

If your trip to municipal court is because you’ve been charged with a traffic offense, you should know that entry of a guilty plea can have consequences in a later civil suit.  “[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.” Maida v. Kuskin, slip op. at 7, 2015 WL 1239247 *7 (March 19, 2015).   For example,  a guilty plea to careless driving is evidence of negligence (although not conclusive proof of the facts underlying the offense).  Simply, if you have been hurt in an accident and also received a traffic ticket, a guilty plea in municipal court could have a damaging impact on your case for damages.

At the same time, New Jersey courts have recognized that municipal court proceedings are often informal and that there are various reasons why people plead guilty without intending to incur the consequences of the plea in a later civil suit: time constraints; inability to secure witnesses or not wanting to disturb them for a small matter; unease with court proceedings, etc.

To address this tension between the desirability of pleas in municipal court and the potential impact in a later civil case, New Jersey has adopted  a procedure known as the “civil reservation.”  The “civil reservation” practice has been incorporated into the New Jersey Rules of Court at Rule 7:6-2(a)(1) which provides that:  “On the request of the defendant, the court may, at the time of the acceptance of a guilty plea, order that the plea shall not be evidential in any civil proceeding.”  R. 7:6-2(a)(1).

IF YOU GOT A TICKET
If you got a traffic ticket but were injured in the accident, it is worth your time and expense to have a lawyer go to municipal court with you.  If you decide to plead guilty, he or she will likely ask the municipal court judge to accept the plea with a “civil reservation.”  The “civil reservation” will be entered pretty much as a matter of course unless the prosecutor or the victim objects and shows good cause why it should not be entered.  It is impossible to say exactly what constitutes good cause but it can be said that it is difficult to demonstrate to a municipal judge why he or she should withhold a “civil reservation.”  However, in order for a “civil reservation to be meaningful, it has to be done correctly. our New Jersey Supreme Court has recently made clear that if a “civil reservation” is not “properly entered” it may be disregarded in a later civil case and your plea might be used as evidence against you.  The procedure which must be followed goes like this: 1) the plea must be made in open court; 2) that the municipal court judge must make a sufficient inquiry to conclude that any plea is knowing and voluntary, and 3) there must be a factual basis for the plea.   Maida v. Kuskin, slip op. at 4, 2015 WL 1239247 *4 (March 19, 2015).  “Civil reservations” which do not follow this basic structure are subject to reversal.  Since civil reservations may only be entered in connection with pleas entered in open court, you may not obtain a civil reservation if the guilty plea is entered without a court appearance.

The relative ease with which such reservations are granted promotes pleas in traffic cases while at the same time protecting the interests of the motor vehicle owner and driver and the insurance carriers in the related civil case.

IF THE OTHER DRIVER GOT A TICKET
A victim of a motor vehicle accident must be provided with timely advance notice of the date, place, and time of the defendant’s initial appearance and submission of any plea agreement. N.J.S.A. 39:5–52(a)(2).  You can always object to the entry of a civil reservation but it will be up to you to show “good cause” why it should not be entered.  As noted, “civil reservations” are pretty much entered as a matter of course. It will be up to you to show why the “civil reservation” should not be entered, not up to the other driver to show why it should.  If you and/or your lawyer go to municipal court on the date the other driver has to appear, you must observe carefully that the procedures set forth above were followed.  Otherwise, any “civil reservation” entered may be, as mentioned, “subject to reversal.”

Several factors underlie the existence of the civil reservation practice.  First, the Maida Court noted that “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.”  In other words, if you plead guilty to a traffic ticket, that plea might be used against you in a later civil proceeding.

CONCLUSION
The take away from Maida v. Kuskin, is:1) if you got a ticket and plan to plead guilty, you should obtain a lawyer who will ensure that this is done properly and that a “civil reservation” is properly entered.  Otherwise, your guilty plea might later be used against you if you file a civil suit to recover money damages for your injuries and losses; 2) if you got a ticket and plan to plead guilty without appearing, you cannot get a “civil reservation;” 3) if you were injured and the other party got a ticket, you may object to the entry of a “civil reservation” but the burden will be on you to show “good cause” why it should not be entered and that will not be easy.  You or your lawyer should make sure that the requirements for “civil reservations” have all been complied with and if they were not, it may be ineffective in a subsequent suit for money damages.

-Karim

Have you or a loved one been injured in a bicycle or car accident? In a fall or at work? Contact an experienced personal injury lawyer at The Law Offices of Karim Arzadi today. When you contact our office we will immediately set an appointment where you will meet an attorney.  We have conveniently located offices in Perth Amboy, New Brunswick, Jersey City, Roselle and East Orange. We understand traumatic brain injuries, neck injuries, back injuries and other medical problems caused by accidents and the problems that they can cause in your daily life.  Our law firm will always work to make sure you are compensated fairly.

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