October 9, 2013
BRUCE MAIDA, MARYBETH MAIDA, MARYBETH MAIDA, per quod and CHRISTOPHER MAIDA, a minor, by his guardian ad litem, MARYBETH MAIDA, Plaintiffs-Respondents,
MICHAEL KUSKIN and GARY S. KUSKIN, Defendants-Appellants.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 30, 2013
On appeal from an Interlocutory Order of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Docket No. L-3020-11.
Hoagland, Longo, Moran, Dunst & Doukas, LLP, attorneys for appellants (Richard J. Mirra, of counsel and on the brief).
Maggiano, DiGirolamo & Lizzi, attorneys for respondents (Michael Maggiano and Daniel LaTerra, on the brief).
Before Judges Fisher and Espinosa.
The trial court determined, by way of an opinion and order entered on July 24, 2013, that defendant's guilty plea in municipal court – to the offense of failing to report an accident, N.J.S.A. 39:4-130 – would be admissible at the trial of this personal injury action. The trial judge held that defendant failed to properly seek what we will refer to as a civil reservation, i.e., a condition that the guilty plea not be evidential in any civil proceeding, and therefore concluded that the guilty plea was admissible. We granted defendant's motion for leave to appeal in a separate order and now summarily reverse.
Rule 7:6-2(a)(1) provides guidelines for guilty pleas in municipal court. Included within the Rule is the following: "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." Ibid. In this case, the one-page municipal transcript of May 13, 2010, reveals that the guilty plea was entered through the brief statements of the prosecutor and defense counsel; if defendant was present, he never spoke. It is true that defendant did not request a civil reservation in this brief proceeding in open court, but in a letter sent by defense counsel to the court that same day, defendant requested that a civil reservation be imposed. Rule 7:6-2(a)(1) does not require that the request be made in open court and, as we held in State v. LaResca, 267 N.J.Super. 411, 421 (App. Div. 1993), absent objection,  the request for a civil reservation should be granted "as a matter of course." The municipal judgment, in fact, states "civil reservation granted."
Despite this disposition, the trial judge determined that defendant was required to make the request "in open court on the record contemporaneously with the plea of guilty." Although that certainly would be the best of all practices, that determination overlooks "the often-informal nature of municipal court proceedings." Ibid. Moreover, the judge's holding misapprehends the fact that whether the plea will be evidential in a civil case is initially determined by the municipal court's order of disposition. Any question about the accuracy or propriety of the municipal order is a matter to be addressed by proper application in the municipal court and not by what may or may not be discernible from the transcript.
The trial judge's holding, if sustained, would also have the undesirable consequence of practically requiring post-conviction relief in the municipal court. Certainly, a perpetuation of the order in question would mandate a stay of the civil matter to permit defendant to seek post-conviction relief in the municipal court. The admittedly sketchy record strongly suggests that the civil reservation was a material aspect of defendant's guilty plea, as his attorney's letter at the time reveals. If he were now deprived of that reservation, he ought in fairness be permitted the opportunity to seek a withdrawal of his municipal guilty plea. That, however, is not necessary because we are satisfied the trial judge mistakenly misapprehended the liberal approach toward granting civil reservations embodied in Rule 7:4-2(a)(1).
Although not relevant to our disposition, we note other potential reasons for excluding the guilty plea at trial notwithstanding the civil reservation. For example, defendant never personally gave a factual basis for his guilty plea. See R. 7:6-2(a)(1) (directing that "the court shall not . . . accept a guilty plea without first addressing the defendant personally and determining by inquiry of the defendant and, in the court's discretion, of others, that the plea is made voluntarily with understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea and that there is a factual basis for the plea").
In addition, the trial court could still have excluded the guilty plea pursuant to a principled weighing of the competing interests outlined in N.J.R.E. 403. That is, as suggested by some of the materials in the record on appeal, we gather that plaintiff contends in this case that he was a pedestrian when struck by a vehicle driven by defendant; on the other hand, defendant asserts that his vehicle was stopped at a crosswalk when plaintiff, while crossing, struck the front of defendant's vehicle and shouted profanities. Defendant's guilty plea – that he failed to make a timely report of that accident – does not necessarily provide contradictory evidence of defendant's version. Moreover, the nature of that evidence – a guilty plea – carries a prejudicial impact that might very well be viewed as "substantially outweigh[ing]" whatever probative value the guilty plea might have.