I have advocated on this site the importance of a civil reservations motion as part of a traffic court plea to "contain the damage" that might flow into civil court from doing so. This motion is based on a court rule which states that "[f]or good cause shown,the court may, in accepting a plea of guilty, order that such plea not be evidential in any civil proceeding." The question is, what is the scope of that order? How well can it contain the damage? Well, now we have some guidance.
Court Limits Reservation to Civil Damages
On August 27, 2010, in the case of State v. Lacey, the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled that the protections afforded by a civil reservation are limited to those civil actions where the plaintiff seeks to recover money damages. It does not apply to other collateral, civil actions where, for example, the State or other governmental entity is the plaintiff.
Here, the defendant pled guilty to fourth degree abuse of a minor (he slapped his girlfriend's four year old child leaving "red marks" on his face), but argued that the plea should not be used against him by DYFS with respect to visitation or other proceedings that were pending at the time. The court disagreed for two reasons.
The Court's Reasoning
First, the judges held that "[a]n action commenced by DYFS is an action by the State against a parent or guardian designed to protect the best interests of the child; it is not an action for money damages or other traditional relief in a 'civil proceeding.'" Thus the reservation would apply if a civil suit was brought by the child's parent for damages arising out of the assault.
Second, when making the civil reservations motion, the defendant has the burden to show a "reason sufficient to warrant the granting of his application." Here the defendant simply made the motion as part of the plea without a basis for barring it in a DYFS proceeding. In addition, the court felt that the "best interest of the child" trumped any rights claimed by the defendant.
The thing to remember here is that, although a civil reservation is an important step to take in many a traffic (or criminal) court proceeding, it is not a guarantee that the plea will not come back to haunt you in the future outside a civil proceeding.
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