Recently, the Supreme Court reviewed the circumstances under which a defendant can obtain a civil reservation in municipal court. Commonly, a civil reservation is requested by a defendant entering a guilty plea in a municipal traffic matter so that the plea will be sealed from use in any related civil action such as a personal injury lawsuit. A civil reservation Order prevents a plaintiff from using the defendant’s guilty plea to help establish liability in a resulting civil action. In a case where liability is questionable, the Order is especially important.
The first part of our Court’s decision is that a civil reservation must be made in open court, contemporaneously with the court’s acceptance of the defendant’s guilty plea. Therefore, a request for a civil reservation order subsequent to a defeant’s plea will be denied. The Court also stated that, in the event a defendant chooses to submit a guilty plea by mail, a civil reservation will not be available. Second, the Court held that a civil reservation order should not be entered where the defendant pleaded guilty to an offense that does not arise out of the same occurrence that is the subject of the civil proceeding or where the prosecutor or victim demonstrates good cause that the Order should not be entered. In the case before the Court, the defendant had pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and, since that issue was not germane to the civil injury matter, a civil reservation should not have been entered.
Finally, although the issue of the scope of the civil reservation was not before the Court, the Court stated 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.” Municipal and civil practitioners have long discused the scope of a civil reservation order. Here, our Supreme Court has acknowledged that the defendant’s allocution is part of the plea that is sealed pursuant to the civil reservation Order.
Therefore, even though many people choose to represent themselves because they believe municipal court matters to be routine, it is always wise to consult an attorney to protect your interests, particularly when there is or may be a related personal injury action.