The Appellate Division, in a per curiam opinion, recently held that a Defendant who entered a guilty plea in a municipal court successfully secured a civil reservation without having requested same in open court contemporaneously with his plea. Bruce Maida v. Michael Kusin, (A-0590-13T2, decided October 9, 2013, App. Div., unpublished). Maida concerns a personal injury action that arose from a automobile-pedestrian collision. The Defendant, who was the driver of the involved automobile, was issued a ticket as a result of the incident and subsequently pled guilty in municipal court for failing to report an accident, a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-130. Plaintiff sought to have this plea admitted into evidence at trial.
The Trial Court ruled that Defendant’s plea was admissible because Defendant had failed to properly seek a civil reservation. Apparently, there was no request made on the record to the Court for a civil reservation at the time that Defendant’s guilty plea was entered. Instead, Defendant’s counsel subsequently, although on the same day, sent a letter to the municipal court requesting that the civil reservation be imposed. The municipal judgment ultimately stated “civil reservation granted.” The Trial Court found that Defendant’s actions had not secured the civil reservation as there is a requirement that the request be made, “in open court on the record contemporaneously with the plea of guilty.” The Appellate Division granted Defendant leave to appeal and summarily reserved the Trial Court’s ruling.
The Appellate Court’s review looked first to Rule 7:6-2(a)(1) which addresses guilty pleas in municipal court and provides, “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.” The Court stated that this Rule does not require that the civil reservation request be made in open court. In support, the Court cited State v. LaResca, 267 N.J. Super. 411, 421 (App. Div. 1993), for the proposition that civil reservations should be granted “as a matter of course” when there is no objection. The Appellate Court also felt that the “often informal” nature of municipal court provided justification for not strictly requiring that the request be contemporaneous. Additionally, the Appellate Court noted that the content of the municipal court’s judgment, or disposition, should have been determinative to the Trial Court’s analysis of whether a civil reservation had been entered. According to the Appellate Court, if the Plaintiff wanted to challenge the accuracy or propriety of the municipal judgment, the proper venue for seeking redress would have been the municipal court.
Ultimate resolution of whether the Defendant properly secured a civil reservation is presently undetermined as the New Jersey Supreme Court granted Plaintiff leave to appeal on January 17, 2014. Stay tuned…
By Daniel C. Seger, Esq.