Most criminal cases end with a plea bargain or plea agreement. The most common plea deal is when the defendant (the person charged with a crime) pleads guilty, and in exchange for the plea, he gets some favorable treatment from the prosecution. For example, he may plead guilty in exchange for the prosecutor’s promise to recommend that he get a lighter sentence than he’d probably get if he went to trial and lost.

A less commonly used plea is the “no contest” or “nolo contendere” plea. It’s similar to guilty plea, but it has some significant differences.

What Is It Exactly?

With a plea of no contest or nolo contendere, the defendant accepts the punishment for the crime without admitting or denying his guilt. In other words, you don’t contest or challenge the charges, and you don’t admit to committing the crime or even deny it, but you let the court sentence you for committing the crime.

So, as a practical matter, pleading no contest is essentially the same as pleading guilty. You’re convicted of a crime and a punishment or sentence will be imposed. So, why do it?

The main benefit of pleading no contest is that the conviction can’t be used against you later in a civil (non-criminal) lawsuit that may come out of the criminal activity. For example, you were involved in a car accident with another car, and the other driver was injured seriously. After accident investigation, you’re charged with reckless driving, a crime. If you’re allowed to plead no contest to that charge, the other driver can’t sue you and use that conviction to prove you’re liable for her injuries.

How It Works

You don’t have a right to plead nolo contendere. You have to get permission or consent from the court, and that consent isn’t always easy to get. A judge may refuse to let you plead no contest even if the prosecution agrees to let you enter it. Generally, though, a judge will look favorably on your request if the prosecution doesn’t oppose or fight your request. The judge will look at a variety of factors when deciding whether to let you plead no contest, such as:

  • Mitigating circumstances. These are things in your case that would make a judge or jury more likely to show you some mercy or leniency. A good example is if a mental or psychological disorder makes it hard to know right from wrong 
  • Defendant’s personal characteristics, such as the ability to understand English
  • Whether defendant was represented by an attorney, which tends to show that he understands his legal rights
  • Defendant’s culpability as compared to his co-defendants, that is, whether his involvement in the crime was a lot less than the other co-defendants who committed the crime

Like a regular guilty plea, before it can be accepted by the court, the judge must talk to you in person and in open court to make sure that the plea is being made knowingly and intelligently, and voluntarily. That is, the judge needs to be sure that:

  • You understand the criminal charges against you, that is, the exact crime you’re charged with committing
  • You know and accept the consequences of the plea, namely, that you’re going to be convicted and punished. Also, that you understand that you’re giving up important rights, like the right to a jury trial, and
  • No one forced you to make the plea by making threats against you or family, for example

It Can Be Used against You, Too

Like a regular guilty plea, a nolo contendere plea can be used as evidence against you if you’re later charged with another crime. In other words, it goes on your criminal record. So, it will count as a “strike” under any of your state’s “three strike” laws – where sentences and punishments are more severe for persons who commit three or more of the same or similar crimes. Also, the conviction will show up in a background check that might be run when you apply for a job, for instance.

However, as mentioned earlier, the plea and conviction can’t be used to against you to prove your fault or liability in a non-criminal case. And, if you later withdraw or cancel the plea, the prosecution can’t use anything you said during the plea negotiations against you if it later brings you to trial for the crime charged.

May Not Be Available

If you’re being tried in a federal court, then you may be able to enter a nolo contendere plea. The rules for federal criminal trials allows for this type of plea. On the other hand, some state courts don’t allow these pleas at all. In other states, there may be many restrictions on when a no contest plea may be entered. For example, some states may not let a defendant plead no contest to serious violent crimes, like murder or rape. Other states may allow no contest pleas to traffic offenses only, like speeding tickets. You need to check the laws in your area to see if a no contest plea is possible for you.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What’s the difference between an Alford plea and a plea of no contest?
  • I’ve been charged with arson in a state court. Can I plead no contest?
  • I pleaded guilty to reckless driving two years ago. Recently, I was charged with reckless driving again, and this time someone was seriously hurt. If I plead no contest to the new charge, and if the victim files a civil lawsuit against me, can he tell the jury about my first plea?