Although in the state of California, criminal defendants actually have six different ways they may plead to a criminal charge, the most common pleas entered are guilty, not guilty, and nolo contendere. Literally translated, the Latin phrase nolo contendere means “I do not wish to contest.” When a defendant enters a plea of nolo contendere or “no contest” in a California criminal court, that defendant is neither admitting to guilt or nor claiming innocence to the charge.
In most respects, however, a no contest plea has essentially the same legal effect as a guilty plea. Upon pleading no contest, the defendant is found guilty. The sentence will then be handed down at a sentencing hearing and the defendant will have a conviction on his or her criminal record. If a no contest plea means a guilty verdict, a sentence, and a record, what then are the advantages of pleading no contest to a criminal charge?
WHAT IS THE BENEFIT OF A NO CONTEST PLEA?
When the charge a defendant faces is a misdemeanor rather than a felony, pleading no contest has one specific, tangible benefit. If a civil lawsuit seeking damages from the defendant arises from the same incident that led to the criminal charge, the no contest plea cannot be considered an admission of guilt in the civil case, whereas a guilty plea establishes civil liability. Suppose you are involved in a traffic crash with injuries, the police detect alcohol on your breath, and you are charged with DUI. You plead not guilty, but you are nevertheless convicted.
In such a circumstance, those injured by the impaired driver may choose to file a personal injury claim to seek reimbursement for their accident-related medical costs. Because the driver pled not guilty but was found guilty, the guilty verdict can be used in the civil proceeding as evidence of the driver’s liability. So can a guilty plea, as it is an outright admission of guilt. But if the plea is no contest, there is no legal proof of guilt or admission of guilt that can be introduced in the civil proceeding. There also may be other advantages to pleading no contest to a criminal charge:
- A defendant avoids the cost of taking the case to a jury trial.
- A defendant avoids the publicity that a lengthy trial sometimes entails.
- A defendant is likely to receive a harsher punishment if convicted by a trial jury.
To plead no contest in a California criminal proceeding, a defendant must first obtain the permission of the court. Because the effect of a no contest plea is virtually the same as the effect of a guilty plea or a trial conviction, the court must make certain that the defendant’s no contest plea is made freely, voluntarily, and without any misunderstandings, promises, or coercion. Of course, if you face criminal charges in Southern California, you should not make any plea – or even speak to the police or prosecutors – without the advice and presence of an experienced Long Beach criminal defense attorney.
WHAT IS THE NEGATIVE SIDE OF A NO CONTEST PLEA?
Except for the benefit to criminal defendants who are also defendants in civil personal injury claims arising from the same incident, the law treats a no contest plea precisely the same way it treats an admission of guilt or a trial conviction. Although a defendant has not confessed to a crime and has not been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal trial, the case shows up on the defendant’s criminal record as a conviction.
The conviction will be considered as an aggravating factor – a prior offense – if the defendant faces another criminal charge in the future. An aggravating factor is any prior conviction or other specified behavior by a defendant that increases the penalty imposed for a criminal conviction. For example, if you plead no contest to a DUI charge, and you are arrested again for DUI two years later, that second arrest will be considered your second DUI offense, which means you face harsher penalties than those charged with a first offense.
WHEN SHOULD A NOT GUILTY PLEA BE ENTERED?
While a defendant may plead no contest for several reasons, a defendant may also plead not guilty for a number of reasons. If a defendant is genuinely innocent of a criminal charge, he or she will certainly want to plead not guilty. And even when a defendant, in fact, committed the criminal act, a not guilty plea can be used as a strategy to “test” the state’s case and see if a prosecutor has sufficient evidence for a conviction. In most criminal courts and cases, a not guilty plea can be changed to a no contest plea at any point during the proceeding.
Every person who is charged with a crime in the state of California has a legal right under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to avoid self-incrimination and to plead not guilty. California criminal defense attorneys frequently advise their defendants to enter a not guilty plea – as a bargaining tactic – when the attorney believes that he or she can obtain a better final resolution for the defendant by doing so.
In most California misdemeanor cases and in virtually all misdemeanor DUI cases, at your first court appearance – your arraignment – you will be asked to enter a plea and offered a plea bargain by the prosecutor. A plea bargain is an agreement to plead guilty or no contest to a lesser charge and to accept the penalty for that lesser charge in return for a dismissal of the greater charge. If you accept the plea bargain, you will be convicted for the lesser charge, and no trial will take place. If you reject the plea bargain, you will face a trial – on the greater charge.
If you are charged with a crime in California, consider fully the consequences of the choices you make regarding a plea and a plea bargain. It is your decision alone, but you’ll need to decide carefully and consider the advice of your Long Beach criminal defense attorney. What you choose will impact your family, your work, and depending on the charge, your driving privilege. Be certain to tell your lawyer everything that might conceivably be helpful.