Stipulation versus guilty plea: Are both admissions?
The scene has played out many times in many courtrooms. In a civil suit arising out of an auto accident, the plaintiff’s attorney seeks to introduce evidence of the defendant’s conviction of a traffic offense related to the same event. The conviction was entered on a plea, she argues, and it therefore constitutes an admission on the part of the defendant. Confidently, the defense attorney notes that the conviction was not entered on a plea per se; instead, it was entered on a “stipulation” to the facts which supported the conviction. This makes all the difference, the defense attorney argues, and there is no admission made by his client.
It is my experience that a lot of attorneys and judges would accept the defendant’s argument in this hypothetical case; indeed, for a long time I was one of them. But a closer look at the law may lead to a different conclusion. In Batterton v. Thurman, 105 Ill.App.3d 798, 434 N.E.2d 1174 (3d Dist. 1982), the plaintiff brought a claim for assault and battery against the defendant, and he successfully introduced evidence that the defendant had stipulated to the facts underlying a related criminal charge arising out of the same incident. The Appellate Court held that the defendant’s stipulation constituted a “binding admission that he struck plaintiff and injured him.” The Court stated that such an admission “is recognized by the majority of jurisdictions as being admissible in a subsequent civil trial,” and that “such a rule of evidence manifests logic and common sense.” Batterton, 105 Ill.App.3d 802, 434 N.E.2d 1176 - 77.
Batterton’s conclusion may well be supported by sound “logic and common sense.” What is the practical difference between a defendant pleading guilty to an offense (which is clearly an admission) as opposed to stipulating to the factual basis for a conviction of that offense? If I agree that I ate a sandwich containing bacon, lettuce and tomato, do I have wiggle room to deny that I had a BLT? It is likely that most defendants who stipulate to the underlying facts rather than pleading guilty do so on the advice of counsel, and specifically with the intention of avoiding an admission which might be used against them in a civil case. But really … can it be that easy? Does form so easily triumph over function?
Curiously, Batterton did not discuss the significance of an Illinois Supreme Court case issued only a year before which touched on the same question. In Thornton v. Illinois Founders Ins. Co., 84 Ill. 2d 365, 418 N.E.2d 744 (1981), the Supreme Court suggested that not all stipulations are the same. So, if the criminal defendant’s trial is a sham, or if he stipulates that the evidence is sufficient to convict, then the stipulation will be treated as an admission in a subsequent civil case. However, where the stipulation is only as to facts, and the defendant’s guilt is ultimately left to the trier of fact, the stipulation is not admissible in a subsequent civil case. Thornton, 84 Ill. 2d 372, 418 N.E.2d 748 (1981).
Thornton’s rule aside, appellate decisions since Batterton have continued to follow the rule laid down in that case: a stipulation to the facts supporting a criminal conviction may be introduced in a subsequent civil trial as an admission against interest. See In re Marriage of Engelbach, 181 Ill. App. 3d 563, 575, 537 N.E.2d 372, 380 (2d Dist. 1989); W. States Ins. Co. v. Kelley-Williamson Co., 211 Ill. App. 3d 7, 12, 569 N.E.2d 1289, 1292 (2d Dist. 1991); Young v. Forgas, 308 Ill. App. 3d 553, 565, 720 N.E.2d 360, 368 (4th Dist. 1999).
If there is a lesson here for lawyers and judges, it is that no one should abide by the simple rule that a stipulation to the facts supporting a guilty plea is necessarily inadmissible in a subsequent civil proceeding. The stipulation-versus-guilty-plea argument is not a magic bullet.