Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: May 16, 2018

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A no contest plea is a plea used in criminal proceedings as an alternative to a guilty or not guilty plea, whereby the defendant neither disputes nor admits to doing the crime. This type of plea, also known as nolo contendere, literally means “I do not wish to contend.” A no contest plea is not an admission of guilt, but is treated as a criminal conviction by the court which hands down sentencing. The plea shows up on the defendant’s criminal record.

While a defendant has an automatic right to plead not guilty or guilty, most states require that the defendant obtain permission from the court to plead no contest. This plea is used most often during the plea-bargaining process in a criminal case. The plea is not available in all states. 

Advantages of a No Contest Plea

While a plea of no contest has many similar outcomes as a plea of guilty, the most important incentive to enter a no contest plea instead of a guilty plea is that the no contest plea cannot be used as evidence of guilt should the defendant face a civil action by the victim at a later date.

For example, suppose an individual is involved in a multiple car pile-up. The police arrive at the scene and as they are taking a statement from the individual, they smell alcohol on his breath and arrest him for driving under the influence. He decides to plead not guilty, is taken to trial, and is convicted for a DUI offense. The other people involved in the accident want to bring a civil suit against this individual for property damages and medical bills. Since the individual pled not guilty, and was later convicted, or found guilty, the other people can use this conviction as an admission of the individual’s fault in the civil suit against him.

However, if the individual instead pleaded no contest to the DUI, even though he would still be subject to the same punishments as if he were found guilty, the other people would not be able to use the conviction as evidence of an admission of fault in the civil case.

There are other benefits to a no contest plea:

  1. Avoiding costly attorney fees to try a case
  2. Avoiding the publicity associated with a lengthy trial, especially if the defendant is famous or has standing in the community
  3. Taking the blame for someone else to avoid their investigation
  4. Expediting the court process to lesser charges if defendant is facing serious charges
  5. Receving a lighter sentence from a judge on a lesser charge rather than the uncertainity of a harsher punishment that might result from standing trial and a subsequent conviction.

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Disadvantages of a No Contest Plea

While a no contest plea is not an admission of guilt, the defendant is still subject to the same penalties as if he pleaded guilty. In other words, judges treat a no contest plea the same way they would treat an admission of guilt. This means that even though a defendant has not admitted or denied the crime, the court can still sentence him as if he admitted the crime. The crime and penalties are also show up in the defendant’s criminal record as a conviction.

Even when a defendant pleads no contest for a crime, this crime is still treated as an aggravating factor in future crimes. An aggravating factor is any prior crime or other bad behavior by a defendant that is used to increase the penalties for a conviction. Let’s say, an individual pleaded no contest in a DUI criminal proceeding, and several years later is arrested again for a DUI. The previous DUI in which he pleaded no contest is still taken into consideration when the court determines the defendant’s sentence in the second DUI. Because the individual has a previous DUI on his record, the sentence for the second DUI will likely be harsher.