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Johnson v. Leuthongchak

May 10, 2001


Before Steadman, Glickman and Washington, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman, Associate Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. A. Franklin Burgess, Jr., Trial Judge)

Argued November 9, 2000

This appeal arises out of a traffic accident in the District of Columbia involving a two-car collision. A jury found appellant Johnson's negligence to be the proximate cause of the accident and awarded damages against him. In the course of the proceedings, the trial court ruled that evidence of appellee Leuthongchak's payment by mail of the civil fine for a traffic ticket, *fn1 given for allegedly failing to yield the right of way, was inadmissible as a matter of law. *fn2 We follow the virtually unanimous holdings of courts in this country rejecting such evidence and affirm the judgment.

It is established in the District of Columbia that a formal plea of guilty to a traffic offense is admissible in a related civil action. See Frost v. Hays, 146 A.2d 907, 908 (D.C. 1958). The question before us then becomes whether sending payment of a civil fine in the mail is different from pleading guilty in open court for admissibility purposes. *fn3

Guilty pleas are generally admitted on the theory that they fall within the rule dealing with admissions by party-opponents. We have adopted the substance of Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2) on "admission by party-opponent," and deem such statements to be admissible into evidence. See Obelisk Corp v. Riggs Nat'l Bank, 668 A.2d 847, 855 n. 7 (D.C. 1995); Chaabi v. United States, 544 A.2d 1247, 1249 & n.2 (D.C. 1988). A "statement" encompasses conduct "intended as an assertion." Fed. R. Evid. 801(a). *fn4

Many courts have considered the precise issue whether payment of a traffic fine may be admitted as evidence in a related civil case. Virtually without exception, such evidence has been deemed inadmissible. Within the past decade or so, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, in ruling on the issue, cited, merely as examples, no less than nine such holdings and stated that it had found "no case to the contrary." LePage v. Bumila, 552 N.E.2d 80, 82-83 (Mass. 1990). *fn5

Closer to home and even more recent is the holding in Briggeman v. Albert, 586 A.2d 15 (Md. 1991). The highest court in Maryland, following the reasoning of many courts, explained its holding in part as follows:

There may be legitimate, plausible reasons for choosing to pay the fine, by mail or otherwise, without intending to concede guilt. If by taking advantage of this right, a defendant would be making a damaging admission that could be used against him or her in a subsequent civil liability suit, much of the incentive to utilize the option would be lost . . . . An admission may be implied through the affirmative conduct or, in the case of `tacit admissions," the silence or inaction of a party . . . [T]he mere remittance of payment in an effort to dispose of a traffic citation in the least intrusive manner possible is not necessarily indicative of a defendant's recognition of his or her own guilt . . . .It is likely that even people who believe themselves innocent often pay preset fines for the sake of convenience or expediency rather than go to court and stand trial. Id. at 17.

The Maryland court also expressed concern about the excessive prejudicial effect of what it termed the "backdoor" admission of the police officer's opinion of guilt, which, we might note, would not be subject to cross-examination:

If we were to assume that evidence of payment of a traffic citation has some relevance in a subsequent civil case, any probative value is outweighed by the prejudicial effect. Admission of a defendant's payment of the traffic fine naturally includes evidence that the party was given a traffic ticket and could allow the jury to draw the impermissible inference that, because a police officer believed the defendant was guilty and thus issued a citation, then the defendant must have been at fault. The `backdoor' admission of a police officer's opinion of guilt is prejudicial and outweighs the probative value of the fine payment." Id.

Two years later, the Supreme Court of Tennessee, deciding the same issue, noted, "A jurisdiction which allows payment of a prescheduled amount is said to employ the `cafeteria' system. States employing the `cafeteria' system have, either by statute or case law, almost unanimously excluded from evidence payment of the traffic fine in a later action based on the same accident or occurrence that resulted in the traffic citation." Williams v. Brown, 860 S.W.2d 854, 856 (Tenn. 1993) (citations omitted).

It is true that in the District of Columbia, a person receiving a traffic ticket (formally termed a Notice of Infraction) must, by statute, respond in one of two ways. The person may "admit, by payment of the civil fine, the commission of the infraction" or "deny the commission of the infraction," D.C. Code § 40-615(a), *fn6 and payment of the fine "shall be deemed a finding of liability." *fn7 But the rule of exclusion has been applied even in a jurisdiction where a mailed response is, on its face, indicative of a guilty plea. See Hannah v. Ike Topper Structural Steel Co., 201 N.E.2d 63, 64 (Ohio App. 1963) (exclusion where form authorized clerk to "enter plea of guilty for me" upon payment of fine); see also LaRue v. Archer, 939 P.2d 586 (Idaho App. 1997) ("payment of the fixed penalty by mail shall constitute an admission of the charge.")

Following the overwhelming authority excluding such evidence, we are persuaded that the trial court's ruling was correct as a matter of law. Accordingly, ...

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