What is a no-contest plea?

When a person commits a crime, they will usually plead guilty or not guilty. However, a person may choose to plead no-contest. A no-contest plea means they will not fight the charges against them, but aren't admitting guilt. You will still have a conviction on your record, but you can avoid going to trial with a no-contest plea.

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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: Jul 14, 2021

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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. No contest meaning (also known as nolo contendere) literally equals to “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 record as a criminal charge.

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. A defendant should also consult a criminal defense lawyer about all their options before making this move. This plea is used most often during plea bargains in criminal cases, and it is not available in all states.

Read on to find out what is the difference between pleading guilty and no contest and why you should plead no contest. Just enter your ZIP code below if you need further assistance.

What are the 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 civil action by the victim at a later date. A criminal defense attorney may have more options to defend you 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 in a criminal trial, the other parties can use this 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 parties would not be able to use the conviction as evidence of an admission of fault in the civil lawsuit.

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. Receiving a lighter sentence from a judge in a plea agreement rather than the uncertainty of a harsher punishment that might result from a standing trial and a subsequent conviction.

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What Are The Disadvantages of A No Contest Plea?

While pleading no contest to a misdemeanor is not an admission of guilt, the defendant is still subject to the same penalties as if they pled guilty. This means that even though a defendant has not admitted or denied the crime, the court can still sentence him as harshly as if he admitted the crime. This is at the discretion of the judge in some courts and according to jurisdictional sentencing guidelines in others. The crime and penalties also show up in the criminal defendant’s record as a conviction.

Even when a defendant pleads no contest for a crime, this crime is still treated as an aggravating factor in a future civil proceeding. An aggravating factor is any prior crime or other bad act by a defendant that is used to increase the penalties for a conviction. Let’s say an individual pled 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.

Should You Plea No Contest to a Lesser Charge?

A no contest plea is often used as a bargaining chip. So defendants sometimes get the option to plea to a lesser charge. It means you admit no guilt for the crime in question, but the court can determine the punishment. On the other hand, pleading guilty means you admit the charges, you have no defense for your actions, and the court can impose punishment against you. The court must ensure that a person has voluntarily entered the guilty plea and believes you are telling the truth. You may still need to make a statement regarding your case. Restrictions on pleading no contest vary between states, and in some jurisdictions, it is prohibited.

The best way to make this decision is by talking to your defense attorney. They can review the facts of your case and advise you on a plea deal or something else. You don’t have to do what your criminal attorney suggests. Ultimately, the decision is up to you, but you should have a qualified professional on your side.

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