Pleading no contest to a criminal charge is similar to pleading guilty, but legally speaking, there are some significant differences that defendants should keep in mind.
Laws in almost every state allow for pleas of no contest, or nolo contendere in Latin, for certain types of cases. No contest means you're conceding the charge without admitting guilt and without presenting a defense.
But unlike a plea of guilty or innocent, a defendant must get a court's consent to plead no contest, which comes with certain legal consequences. Here are three things every defendant should understand:
- Court discretion
In general, no contest pleas are not allowed in death-penalty cases. In other cases, a judge has discretion in deciding whether to accept a no contest plea. For example, if the facts plainly show a defendant is innocent, a judge will not allow a plea of no contest.
A judge must also make sure a defendant is knowingly and voluntarily pleading no contest. This means the defendant's plea can't be influenced by threats or promises, and she must fully understand the charges and legal consequences of pleading no contest.
- Legal advantages
By pleading no contest, a defendant can avoid going to trial on the criminal charge. This can be advantageous if a trial's outcome is uncertain or if a defendant doesn't want facts in the case to be aired out in public.
Also, a no contest plea cannot be used as evidence against a defendant in a civil lawsuit for the same act. So if a defendant pleads no contest to a criminal assault, that plea can't be used to prove her guilt in a civil lawsuit by the victim later on. Of course, it's important to remember that laws vary from state-by-state.
- Legal disadvantages
Still, pleading no contest doesn't mean a defendant is totally off the hook. Legally speaking, a no contest plea has the same effect as a guilty plea or a conviction when it comes to sentencing. So just because you're pleading no contest and avoiding the hassle of a trial, don't necessarily expect the judge to be lenient.
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[Editor's Note 10/18/12 11:14 am PST: This post was updated to clarify that the ramifications of no contest pleas vary by jurisdiction.]
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