No Contest Plea | What Does It Mean & When Is It Used?

Client shaking hands with their attorney.

After an arrest, a criminal defendant must appear in court and answer the charges filed against them in a criminal complaint. The state charges defendants with violations of criminal laws and requires them to appear in criminal court to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest, otherwise known as nolo contendere. Although a guilty and a no contest plea are regarded the same, insofar as the type and length of the sentence or punishment, they differ in significant ways.

How you should plead to criminal charges depends on many factors, including whether the charges are felonies or misdemeanors, your criminal record, the circumstances of the crime, and many other considerations. For example, if you did not commit the crime the state accuses you of, you may want to plead not guilty to the charges. However, sometimes criminal defendants plead guilty or no contest, even if they did not commit a crime. There may be a good reason to do so, depending on an individual’s life situation and reluctance to endure a long trial.

However you plead, understand that there are consequences for each of the three options to plead in a criminal proceeding. To make the right choice, you’ll want the advice of a criminal defense attorney who can explain what each plea means for you.


What Is A No Contest Plea?

A no contest or nolo contendere plea is neither an admission nor a denial of guilt. Thus, one who pleads no contest to criminal charges at their initial hearing, or arraignment, agrees to accept the consequences of criminal offenses without exercising their constitutional right to a jury trial. The United States Constitution guarantees the right to a jury of one’s peers. When a defendant pleads guilty or no contest to criminal charges, they give up that right.

Even though they may not admit guilt, a no contest plea is like a guilty plea in so far as the penalties for a criminal conviction are the same. Whether you plead guilty or no contest, a judge will ask you whether you understand the charges against you, the consequences of pleading no contest (essentially a guilty plea), and whether you freely and voluntarily entered a no contest plea. A judge will want you to answer those questions in open court and on the record.

After pleading no contest, an accused then faces a judge for sentencing, just as they would if they pleaded guilty. The most significant difference between the two pleas is the consequences of a civil lawsuit that often follows a criminal case if a victim suffers injury or property loss.


Other Types Of Pleas

A defendant looks on while her attorney argues her case in court.

A no contest plea is one of several pleas a criminal defendant may consider, given all the relevant factors of their case and life in general. However, most defendants plead not guilty to the state’s charges, knowing they can change their plea later on if they or their attorney negotiate a plea bargain, which is an agreement that the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence or other allowance by the prosecutor representing the state. In most jurisdictions, a judge must approve a plea arrangement.


— Not Guilty Plea

A not guilty plea means the state must prove its case against the defendant. They must prove to a jury that the accused committed the crime or crimes by evidence, whether by documentary or testamentary evidence. So, police reports and witnesses are two common forms of proof. The state’s burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, meaning the state must convince the jury that the evidence shows undeniably that the accused committed the crimes.

— Guilty Plea

A guilty plea is an admission to the crime. A judge will accept a defendant’s guilty plea only after they affirm that the defendant gives their plea voluntarily and knowledgeably. They must know the consequences of the plea, including possible sentences, and accept them without threat or force from anyone under any circumstance. A guilty plea leads to a conviction and a criminal record, which show up on background checks and may limit a defendant’s future employment and housing prospects.

— Alford Plea

A no contest plea is a guilty plea without admitting guilt and is useful when a civil suit follows the criminal action. No contest means a defendant accepts the charges and does not wish to go to trial nor give up a defense to a civil lawsuit. A guilty plea makes it more difficult for a defendant to fight a civil action. To avoid civil liability, a defendant may plead no contest or an Alford plea.

Named after a 1970 Supreme Court case titled North Carolina v. Alford, the plea is a defendant’s denial of guilt (or an assertion of innocence) but an acknowledgment that the state has criminal evidence against them. Like a no contest plea, the Alford plea waives the right to a jury trial and avoids the trap of admitting guilt, which may hurt you in civil liability. Not all states have an Alford plea option.


Guilty Plea vs. Nolo Contendere Plea: Key Differences

While both pleas result in the same consequences—a prison or jail term, fines, community service, probation, diversionary program, or other punishment—the key difference is the admission of guilt. Pleading guilty to a crime or crimes is an admission in open court and in a public record that the allegations in a criminal complaint are true. And even if some or all of the charges are false, a defendant may admit to them by pleading guilty. A defendant may not want to risk going to trial, even if they did not commit the charged crime. They may prefer accepting a plea bargain for lesser penalties than risking a maximum sentence.

Similarly, a defendant may plead nolo contendere to avoid the cost and time of a trial and accept the prosecutor’s plea deal. However, not all prosecutors are willing to accept a no contest plea over a guilty plea. The no contest protects the defendant against possible liability in admitting guilt to a crime in a civil case. An admission of guilt makes it easier for a victim seeking monetary damages to prove the defendant committed wrongful actions that resulted in the claimant’s damages. On the other hand, a no contest plea may not be advantageous in a criminal case. A sentencing judge may find that someone who pleads guilty to the charges is taking responsibility for their actions. As a result, they may consider that fact favorably in sentencing.


How A No Contest Plea Affects Civil Liability

A motorist helps a cyclist who he knocked over with his car.

Because a plea of no contest is a guilty plea without admitting guilt, it may help a defendant in a civil lawsuit to avoid liability. A criminal victim may file a civil lawsuit in the superior court to recover personal injury or property losses. For example, if the state charges a defendant with a hit and run and a drunk driving injury accident, the defendant may face a DUI and a hit-and-run felony charge. The injured victim may then sue the defendant to recover financial losses due to medical bills, lost wages, and car repairs. They may also sue for their physical and psychological pain.

A defendant’s guilty plea in a criminal case helps the victim prove one-half of their case. To win their case, a civil plaintiff must prove the defendant committed wrongful acts or liability and then prove the damages. A civil plaintiff may enter a guilty plea in the criminal case as an admission to the acts alleged in the civil complaint. To avoid civil liability, a defendant may plead no contest or an Alford plea if the latter is available in their state. In that way, the civil plaintiff must prove the defendant committed the wrongful acts that caused their damages. They can not enter a plea of no contest as evidence of wrongdoing. It is not accepted evidence of liability in a court of law since it specifically denies guilt in respect to the charges.


The Bottom Line

A defendant facing criminal charges or citations may have reasons for entering a plea at their arraignment. They may want to plead not guilty and have their day in court, especially if they are innocent of the charges or have a solid defense to defeat the prosecutor’s case. Other defendants plead guilty to a lesser offense in order to bypass the risk of a guilty verdict and tough sentence after criminal trials. Also, to some judges, a guilty plea means the defendant accepts their role and responsibility in committing a crime, which may affect a judge’s sentencing. Pleading guilty means you admit to the charges alleged in a criminal complaint.

However, some crimes that leave victims with personal injury damages may lead to civil lawsuits. In those instances, a defendant may want to plead no contest. While the punishment can be the same as a guilty plea, a no contest plea avoids the trap of admitting guilt that could work against a defendant in a civil court. In an even stronger defensive move, a defendant may want to enter an Alford plea, which is a stronger assertion of innocence while accepting the punishment that goes with a conviction. If available, an Alford plea also avoids a criminal trial.

The best defense strategy for pleading is a matter of facts and circumstances. A criminal defense attorney can advise an accused on the best route to take for the best outcome. It’s best not to wait too long to seek legal advice after a police officer has arrested you for suspected criminal activity.


Frequently Asked Questions


What are the consequences of a no contest plea?

A no contest plea is the same as a guilty plea in terms of sentencing. A conviction after a guilty plea leads to sentencing that a judge sets based on the legal guidelines. Many states have a range of sentences from minimum to maximum sentences. So, for example, a state may punish shoplifting merchandise with a value of over $200.00 with up to 18 months in prison, a maximum $10,000.00 fine, driver’s license suspension, or community service. A defendant who pleads no contest gets the same sentence. If a judge has the discretion to sentence a defendant within a range of prison time and fines, a guilty plea may sit better with a judge than a no contest plea.


What does the process of declaring no contest entail?

An arraignment is typically the first appearance in court for a defendant, where they get to enter a plea. Most defendants plead not guilty, usually on the advice of their legal counsel, and wait to see what the prosecutor’s case looks like or try to negotiate a plea deal. A prosecutor may not agree to a plea bargain without a guilty plea.

If a defendant pleads no contest at the arraignment or later in the criminal proceedings, a judge will ask the defendant questions about their plea. They want to know that the defendant is knowingly and voluntarily entering a plea of no contest or nolo contendere. They want to ensure the defendant understands what a no contest or guilty plea means and knows that they waive their constitutional rights to a speedy trial by their peers before accepting a no contest plea.


How does a person plead if they are not guilty?

A defendant may plead guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere to charges filed against them. They may also enter an Alford plea in some states. Regardless of guilt or innocence, a defendant has the choice to enter any plea. The decision to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest rests on all of the facts of the defendant’s case.

The prosecutor has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury. Some cases are difficult to establish due to circumstantial evidence, non-credible witnesses, or police misconduct in collecting evidence, for example. In that case, an innocent person charged with a crime may want to take their case to trial or take advantage of a prosecutor’s weak case to get a generous plea deal. In that way, a defendant avoids a lengthy trial and the risk that a jury may convict them.


What is the difference between a no contest plea and a not guilty plea?

The main difference between a no contest and a not guilty plea is the consequences. A not guilty plea is a denial of guilt. That means the state must prove guilt to convict the accused unless the defendant accepts a plea bargain.

A no contest plea is neither a denial nor an admission of guilt to the charges while accepting the consequences of a conviction. Thus, an accused preserves their right to fend off a civil claim by not admitting to committing a crime. A criminal defense lawyer typically lays out the advantages and disadvantages of each available plea with the foresight of possible long-term effects of each plea. The attorney-client relationship allows a defendant to be honest about the circumstances and their role in the crime. With good legal advice, perhaps during a free consultation, an accused should fully understand the advantages and disadvantages of each plea as it pertains to their case.