When should a defendant faced with criminal charges be permitted to plead guilty while at the same time reserving the right to keep the guilty plea from being used as evidence against her in a civil case? Rule 3:9-2 purports to answer that question by saying that such reservation of rights should be permitted “for good cause shown.” The recent Appellate Division decision, State v. McIntyre-Caulfield, decided on May 18, 2018, provides a far more complete and satisfactory answer.

Marianne McIntyre-Caulfield was charged with second-degree endangering the welfare of a child after an infant tragically died in her care after being placed on his stomach for a nap at her home where she ran a daycare business. The state agreed to let her enter the pretrial intervention program, which required her to plead guilty, but meant that the charges would be dismissed after completion of a three-year program. However, because the child’s parents had threatened to sue her, and her insurance company had denied coverage and refused to provide a civil defense, a guilty plea meant almost certain financial ruin.

A guilty plea with a civil reservation of rights offered a solution to this dilemma, but although the state did not oppose this approach, the lower court judge denied her request. He found no “good cause” to permit such reservation for three reasons: (1) at the time of her plea, there was no pending civil lawsuit; (2) the defendant had not produced evidence of her financial situation; and (3) the request was premature because she had not completed PTI.

The Appellate Division reversed, explaining why none of the lower court’s stated reasons made sense. First, the appellate court said, the purpose of permitting a civil reservation is to avoid unnecessary criminal trials. It noted that prior cases had found “good cause” under Rule 3:9-2 in two circumstances—when a no-civil-use agreement would remove an obstacle to a guilty plea in a criminal case and when the plea may “wreak devastating financial havoc on a defendant” in a later civil case. Thus, the lower court ruling created a “Hobson’s choice” for McIntyre-Caulfield—either forgo PTI and try to succeed at trial or enter a guilty plea which would be evidential in the civil case with likely ruinous financial consequences.

Dismissing the lower court’s reasons for denying defendant’s Rule 3:9-2 application, the Appellate Division said that it is not necessary that a civil suit be pending when that application is made; rather, the existence of a good faith fear that a civil claimant will use the guilty plea as an admission of liability “triggers the rule” and here such fear was legitimate because two attorneys had written to the defendant on behalf of the parents. As for the lower court’s requirement that the defendant provide evidence of her financial condition, the Appellate Division said no such showing was necessary because her insurance company’s denial of coverage and refusal to provide a defense made clear the financial threat. Moreover, it is not necessary that the defendant have adjudicated her coverage dispute with her insurance company to satisfy “good cause” under Rule 3:9-2 because such disputes can take years to resolve, eliminating the benefit of the rule. Likewise, denying defendant’s application because she had not completed PTI was erroneous because completing PTI is unrelated to the consequences she would face from her guilty plea and staying the Rule 3:9-2 request for completion of PTI would counter her speedy trial rights in the criminal case.

In short, this decision provides useful clarification concerning the right to plead guilty with a civil reservation under Rule 3:9-2 and rightfully eliminates roadblocks to civil reservations, thereby reducing the likelihood of unnecessary trials and eliminating the Hobson’s choice in which defendants may otherwise find themselves.