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How to Obtain a Civil Reservation in a New Jersey Superior Court Case

How to Get a Civil Reservation in New Jersey Superior Court If you have been charged with a crime in Superior Court where a victim was injured, there are additional concerns you may not be aware of, like the importance of obtaining a civil reservation. When facing felony charges, technically known as indictable crimes in New Jersey, the penalties you face are substantial and there may be an option to lessen them through negotiation with the prosecutor. In some situations, based on the facts and evidence, your prior record, and other factors, negotiating a plea agreement may be the best option to resolve the case. You may want to accept the prosecutor’s plea deal and get the ordeal behind you, especially if the probability of a conviction at trial could mean far harsher sentencing and more time in prison. Fortunately, there is a way to better protect yourself against a future lawsuit if the victim decides to sue you in civil court in the future. In Superior Court criminal cases, if an experienced criminal attorney represents you, they can condition your plea agreement on the court granting you a civil reservation. For this reason, it is essential to have a skilled criminal defense lawyer on your side who knows how to obtain a civil reservation so you are not presumably liable for the alleged victim’s civil damages.

What does a Civil Reservation Do?

New Jersey State Rule 3:9-2  is the authority for a superior court judge granting a civil reservation. The purpose is to shield a criminal defendant from their guilty plea spelling consequences in a civil case. For example, the victim of an assault may not use your guilty plea in a civil lawsuit as evidence that you committed an assault. Many times, guilty verdicts and plea bargains include restitution payments to the victim. As such, a judge may order you to pay the victim’s medical bills. However, many criminal victims sue the defendant for damages not covered by restitution. They file a lawsuit to recover their losses beyond what restitution covers.

The implementation of a civil reservation is intended to allow prosecutors and defendants to enter pleas without fear of prejudicing the defendant in a civil lawsuit. Without a civil reservation, a defendant would likely not risk the financial costs of a personal injury award, which can be very expensive. With the protection of civil reservations, the criminal justice system would likely be overrun with trials of defendants forced to fight the charges for a not-guilty plea.

Difference between Municipal and Superior Court Presumptions for Civil Reservations

Rule 3:9-2 is the Superior Court counterpart to municipal court Rule 7:6-2(a)(1), which allows civil reservations for lesser infractions like traffic violations and DWI offenses. The rule allows a court to order that a civil litigant not use the defendant’s guilty plea as evidence in a civil proceeding. The rule authorizes a civil reservation when the judge accepts a guilty plea. The difference between the Municipal and Superior Court civil reservation rules is the presumption in a Municipal Court that a judge will grant the civil reservation unless a prosecutor or victim of the offense shows good cause why a judge should not. In the Superior Court, the defendant has the burden to show good cause for the civil reservation.

Good Cause Requirement

Case law clarifies what constitutes good cause. A superior court judge may consider the defendant’s bona fide concern that a personal injury plaintiff will use the defendant’s guilty plea as an admission of fault in the personal injury civil lawsuit. Since personal injury verdicts award compensatory and sometimes punitive damages, they can be extremely costly. An award covering medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and emotional and financial losses can be hundreds of thousands or millions. Thus, a criminal defendant may show good cause by proving they would suffer insurmountable financial ruin if not granted the reservation.

Otherwise, a defendant facing a costly civil lawsuit and financial devastation may have no choice but to take their chances at trial for a not guilty plea without a court ordering a civil reservation. The civil reservation allows a defendant to enter a plea and avoid a criminal trial without fearing the consequences of the guilty plea in a civil action. Thus, civil reservation promotes the interests of the state and defendants. Case law supports good cause proof as the potential for a civil judgment “wreaking havoc” on the defendant’s finances and the civil reservation as a condition of the defendant’s guilty plea. This was clarified in the case of State v. McIntyre-Caulfield.

In addition, the defendant may retract their guilty plea if the court does not grant the reservation when the reservation is a condition of the plea bargain. Thus, eliminating obstacles to a guilty plea is one of two factors supporting good cause and a judge’s civil reservation order. Without showing good cause, a judge may not grant a civil reservation.

Victim’s Rights

By law, a victim must be informed about the civil reservation and have an opportunity to object to it. On the other hand, they may not stand in the way of a prosecutor’s ability to enter a plea bargain with a defendant. In State vs. Lavrik, the victim disagreed with the defendant’s civil reservation. The defendant pled guilty to criminal sexual contact charges in a deal to enter a diversionary program. When entering the deal, the defendant’s attorney requested a civil reservation. However, the prosecution objected to the judge ordering it since the victim had no opportunity to raise objections.  Upon further hearing, the trial court granted the civil reservation.

Can the Victim Appeal a Civil Reservation Order Once Issued in a Superior Court Case?

The victim in the State vs. Lavrik case later appealed the order for the civil reservation. The Appellate Court then considered whether a victim could appeal a trial court’s civil reservation order. The court ordered that the victim indeed has standing or the right to appeal because she was affected by the order. Ordinarily, the defendant or the state has the right to appeal a ruling in a criminal case. However, because she did not make a motion to the trial or on appeal, the Appellate Court denied her appeal. She needed to file a motion in the trial court to intervene or insert herself into the defendant’s matter to make her objection. The court then decided that the trial court’s order was unsupported and remanded the case to the Superior Court.

Concerning the trial court’s order, the Appellate Court reasoned that the defendant’s guilty plea was not contingent upon whether he got the civil reservation. Thus, one of the proofs of good cause defined in McIntyre-Caulfield was absent. The court also remanded the case to the trial court because the defendant did not satisfy the other good cause requirement, showing proof of a devastating financial hardship to a defendant facing a civil judgment. Thus, the defendant did not show good cause for the civil reservation, such as devastating financial suffering and removing an obstacle preventing a guilty plea.

Need a Lawyer to Get a Civil Reservation in NJ Superior Court

The timing, reasons, and strategy for obtaining a civil reservation take the extensive legal knowledge of a criminal defense attorney who routinely obtains them for clients facing serious charges in Superior Court. The consequences of not getting one are enormous. Preventing a civil litigant from using your guilty plea against you allows you to shift the burden of proof to a plaintiff, who must then prove liability. It gives you a fighting chance to defend yourself in a civil action. Beyond protecting you in plea negotiations and arguing for the least possible sentence during your sentencing hearing, your attorney can also craft a defense for you in your criminal case, tailored to the facts of your case.

Contact The Tormey Law Firm to speak with a lawyer today at (201)-556-1570. With countless cases involving the most serious criminal charges behind us, we are ready to handle your indictable offense accusations in Bergen County, Morris County, Passaic County, Hudson County, Middlesex County, Union County, Monmouth County, and throughout New Jersey. Ensure your protection with experienced legal counsel by contacting our firm today.

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