• Is an Alford Plea in a Criminal Case Admissible in a Subsequent Civil Case?
  • January 12, 2015 | Author: Matthew T. Jones
  • Law Firm: Drew Eckl & Farnham, LLP - Atlanta Office
  • Incidents that involve an alleged criminal act often times give rise to a subsequent civil lawsuit brought by the victim. However, because criminal statutes of limitations are generally shorter than civil statutes of limitations and criminal defendants have a Constitutional right to expedited jury trials, notice of impending civil litigation may not come until after the criminal proceedings are over. Thus, civil defense lawyers are generally left with determining how the defendant’s plea in the criminal case will affect the civil proceedings.

    For instance, Georgia courts have held that, if a party pleads guilty in a criminal case, it will generally be admissible in a subsequent civil case as a party admission, but the admitting party has the ability to explain the circumstances of the plea. See, e.g., Hasty v. Spruill, 207 Ga. App. 485, 428 S.E.2d 420 (1993) (“[A] guilty plea is an admission against interest and prima facie evidence of the facts admitted. . .. We recognize the long standing principle that such admissions are not conclusive and may, therefore, be rebutted to create a genuine issue of material fact for the jury’s determination.”). Conversely, pleas nolo contendere are statutorily prohibited from being admitted in a subsequent civil case. See O.C.G.A. § 17-7-95(c).

    However, there remains another plea, the Alford plea, which is more uncertain. The Alford plea gets its name from the United States Supreme Court case, North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 91 S. Ct. 160, 27 L. Ed. 2d 162 (1970). An Alford plea is a prudent alternative for criminal defendants who find themselves faced with overwhelming evidence and a severe penalty if convicted, yet choose to maintain their innocence. An Alford plea is similar to a plea of nolo contendere, or “no contest”; however, the difference is“[a]n Alford plea is thus a guilty plea and places the defendant in the same position as if there had been a trial and conviction by a jury.” Argot v State, 261 Ga. App. 569, 571 (2003) (emphasis added).

    The ramifications of such a plea in civil proceedings are not surprisingly ambiguous because the defendant has effectively pled that he is both guilty and innocent. Consequently, “[a]lthough Georgia courts accept Alford pleas, no Georgia case has yet addressed the question of whether such a plea would be admissible as a party admission in a civil trial.” Paul S. Milich, Georgia Rules of Evidence, § 18:9 (2013). Indeed, Georgia courts have held that an Alford plea is admissible in subsequent criminal cases, but only because the evidence goes to establish similar transactions. See, e.g., Dixon v. State, 240 Ga. App. 644, 524 S.E.2d 734 (1999) (holding Alford plea was admissible as similar transaction evidence in second burglary trial).

    By contrast, a civil case that follows a criminal case generally arises from the same transaction, so a similar transaction argument is arguably not applicable. However, with Georgia’s recent adoption of the Federal Rules of Evidence, federal law can provide some guidance on the issue.

    In Blohm v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 994 F.2d 1542 (11th Cir. 1993), the Eleventh Circuit specifically held that an Alford plea to criminal charges is admissible in a subsequent civil trial. “As long as the guilty plea represents a voluntary and intelligent choice among alternative courses of action open to the defendant. . .and a sufficient factual basis exists to support the plea of guilt. . .the collateral consequences flowing from an Alford plea are the same as those flowing from an ordinary plea of guilt.” Id. at 1554. The Court specifically held that “assertions of innocence. . . do not transform ordinary guilty pleas into pleas of nolo contendere.” Id. Thus, “the collateral consequences stemming from a guilty plea remain the same whether or not accompanied by an assertion of innocence.” Id. at 1555.

    Comparing this holding to Georgia cases, however, even if an Alford plea is admitted as evidence in a civil case, negligence is not automatically established. A seminal Georgia case discussing the admissibility of a guilty plea in a subsequent civil case is Thompson v. Hill, 143 Ga. App. 272 (1977). In Thompson a motorist brought an action to recover for injuries allegedly sustained in a collision between two automobiles. The defendant was charged and pled guilty to making an improper left turn in city court. The court discussed the admissibility of his plea as follows:

    A guilty plea is an admission against interest and prima facie evidence of the facts admitted. Although defendant’s plea of guilty to a traffic violation is an admission, it is not conclusive that defendant was negligent as it is only a circumstance to be considered along with the other evidence in the civil action for damages.

    . . .Her guilty plea in traffic court to making an improper left turn did not preclude a determination by a jury on the issue of negligence.

    Id. at 275. In a more recent case, wherein the guilty plea to a traffic charge was admitted in a subsequent civil case seeking damages arising out of the same traffic incident, the court reaffirmed that:

    [w]e have long held that a guilty plea to a traffic violation is admissible as an admission against interest, but does not conclusively establish negligence; it is only a circumstance to be considered along with the other evidence in the civil action for damages.

    Gaddis v. Skelton, 226 Ga. App. 325, 326 (1997). Accordingly, given the fact that Georgia courts have equated Alford pleas to guilty pleas, it is likely that an Alford plea would be admitted into evidence in a subsequent civil case based on the foregoing line of cases.

    Importantly though, if a defendant fails to explain the details of the Alford plea, it can mean the defendant’s insurer no longer owes a duty of defense in the later civil action. For example, in Harden v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 269 Ga. App. 732 (2004), the insureds, a husband and wife, were named defendants in a lawsuit brought by the parent of a sexual abuse victim, who alleged the defendants were negligent in failing to properly supervise child who was molested by the insured husband. Before the civil lawsuit, the husband entered an Alford plea to the criminal charge of child molestation. Once the civil action was brought, the insureds tendered the defense to their homeowner’s insurer, who subsequently filed a declaratory judgment on the grounds that the insured’s policy provided no liability coverage. The Georgia Court of Appeals determined that “the husband’s guilty plea under Alford placed him in the same position as if he had been convicted of child molestation, and the collateral consequences flowing from an Alford plea are the same as those flowing from an ordinary plea of guilt.” Id. 734. Therefore, since “the [husband] failed to rebut this prima facie case and explain [his] prior admission against interest contained in the guilty plea, there was a sufficient basis for the trial court to find, as a matter of law, that [the insurer] had no duty to provide [the husband] with coverage or a defense.” Id.

    In short, while there are no Georgia cases directly on point, it seems clear that an Alford plea is will be admissible in a civil action as evidence of a defendant’s guilt. However, defense counsel should be cognizant that negligence can still be disputed, and if the plea is not dealt with appropriately, the insurer may not owe the insured a duty of defense.