An Alford plea isn’t the same as a guilty plea—it is a guilty plea. Better stated, it’s a kind of guilty plea, one that shares similarities with the “no contest” plea.
To be more precise, an Alford plea is a guilty plea by a defendant who claims to be innocent. A no-contest (or “nolo contendere”) plea is a plea by a defendant who accepts punishment but doesn’t admit guilt. Both kinds of plea result in conviction.
Despite claiming innocence, a typical Alford defendant considers the evidence too strong to go to trial. To that kind of defendant, the chance of a jury conviction and a tougher sentence is enough to plead guilty.
Courts treat Alford pleas differently than standard guilty pleas. An Alford plea is similar to a no-contest plea, but there can be important distinctions between those two.
North Carolina v. Alford
The Alford plea gets its name from a 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case, North Carolina v. Alford. (400 U.S. 25 (1970).) A man named Henry Alford had been charged with first degree murder and was facing the death penalty. He maintained that he was innocent, but the evidence against him appeared to be strong. The defense struck a deal with the prosecution: Alford would plead guilty to second-degree murder.
Alford told the judge, under oath, that he didn’t commit the crime. He said he was pleading guilty because of the threat of the death penalty. The judge, having also heard evidence of Alford’s guilt, accepted the plea and imposed the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
The primary question in front of the Supreme Court was whether Alford’s plea was “voluntary.” That’s a core principle of criminal law—that guilty pleas must be “voluntary and intelligent.” In other words, before accepting a guilty plea, a judge must believe that the defendant understands what’s going on, including the constitutional rights that the plea will forfeit.
The Supreme Court ultimately decided that a guilty plea is legitimate where the defendant proclaims innocence if:
the defendant “intelligently concludes” that the plea is the best option, and
the record strongly indicates that the defendant is guilty.
The Alford plea, sometimes considered an oxymoron because it combines claims of innocence and guilt, gets different treatment throughout the U.S.
Not all states allow Alford pleas. New Jersey, for instance, is one of the few that don’t. (State v. Urbina, 221 N.J. 509 (2015).)
Also, the fact that Alford pleas aren’t prohibited in a jurisdiction doesn’t mean that defendants in that jurisdiction can enter them whenever they’d like. In one federal case, for example, an appeals court held that a judge was allowed to reject a proposed plea pursuant to the judge’s policy against Alford or nolo contendere pleas. (United States v. Buonocore, 416 F.3d 1124 (10th Cir. 2005).)
Admissible in Later Criminal Cases?
Courts differ on whether an Alford plea is admissible in a later criminal trial. They do tend to hold, though, that a conviction coming from an Alford plea is to be considered in sentencing for a later criminal conviction. (United States v. Mackins, 218 F.3d 263 (3d Cir. 2000).)
Federal Rule of Evidence 410 says that, in a later criminal or civil case, evidence of a nolo contendere plea can’t be admitted against the person who made the plea. (Fed. R. Evid. 410(a)(2) (2017).) But in one 2010 federal case, a judge said that nolo contendere pleas and Alford pleas are not the same for purposes of this evidence rule. The judge said that the two kinds of pleas are different in at least one respect: Under federal rules, an Alford plea requires that the judge inquire into whether the defendant is guilty, while a nolo contendere plea doesn’t. So, in that case, the judge held that the defendant's prior Alford plea could be used as evidence in a prosecution for being a felon in possession of a firearm. (United States v. In, No. 2:09CR00070 DS, 2010 WL 2869108 (D. Utah July 20, 2010).)
Admissible in Civil Cases?
A defendant can be prosecuted in criminal court and sued in civil court for the exact same conduct. For instance, the government could prosecute one bar patron for punching another, while the punched patron could also sue the puncher. A guilty plea, interpreted as an admission that the defendant committed the act in question, will typically end the defendant’s chances in a related lawsuit. A nolo contendere plea, on the other hand, often can’t be used in civil court.
Courts have come to different conclusions as to whether and how Alford pleas should come into play in civil cases.
The Supreme Court of Minnesota once considered a case where a woman sued a man for the same alleged conduct (sexual abuse) that resulted in the defendant entering an Alford plea in a criminal case. The court okayed the trial judge’s decision to exclude the Alford plea from the civil case. (Doe 136 v. Liebsch, 872 N.W.2d 875 (Minn. 2015).)
One example on the flip side is a South Carolina case involved a lawsuit for assault and battery and other claims. The state supreme court held the defendant’s Alford plea in the related criminal case prevented him from even arguing that he wasn’t liable in the civil case. (Zurcher v. Bilton, 379 S.C. 132 (2008).)
The law and procedure on Alford pleas depends on the jurisdiction you’re in. For an explanation of the law as it applies to you, make sure to consult an experienced criminal defense attorney.