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"No Contest" Plea or "Guilty" Plea, What's the Difference? What is Nolo Contendere?

Is a “no contest plea” the same as a “guilty plea?”

As a criminal defense attorney, a common question I get asked is if a “no contest” plea is the same as a “guilty.” The answer in most cases is that it depends on the circumstances of the criminal case.

For example, in California criminal court, a defendant who pleads guilty to felony welfare fraud will suffer the same direct and indirect consequences and penalties of that conviction regardless of whether the defendant pleads “guilty” or “no contest” to the felony welfare fraud criminal charges. On the other hand, a defendant who pleads “no contest,” as opposed to “guilty,” to a misdemeanor domestic battery charge in the same California criminal court, may suffer dramatically different direct and indirect consequences than he would have otherwise received if he plead “guilty” to that crime.

So, What the Difference Between a “Guilty” Plea and a “No Contest” Plea.

To begin, a plea of guilty means the defendant is admitting that the criminal charges are true. A plea of no contest, also called ‘nolo contendere,’ means the defendant is not disputing the facts of the case, but he is nevertheless not admitting to the criminal allegations.

Note: To plead guilty does not mean that the defendant is factually guilty. In fact, a defendant who knows he is factually innocent might nevertheless plead guilty to a crime for various reasons. The reason a defendant might plead guilty to a criminal charge, despite knowing he is factually innocent of that criminal charge, usually involves the defendant taking advantage of a plea bargain, which is offered by the court or district attorney, and the terms of which avoid the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence for the defendant if the defendant were otherwise found guilty by a jury after trial.

Procedurally, most criminal defendants enter a plea of not guilty at arraignment (defendant’s first court appearance). The defendant sometimes subsequently changes his plea to either guilty, or no contest, in exchange for a lighter sentence (sentence plea bargain), a changed criminal charge (charge plea bargain), or both a light sentence and changed criminal charge.

For example, Wendy, at arraignment, and through her criminal defense attorney, enters a plea of not guilty to allegations of possession of a controlled substance. Subsequently, Wendy’s criminal defense attorney and district attorney work out a plea bargain whereby Wendy can avoid jail time if she pleads guilty or no contest to the possession charge in exchange for a non-incarceration probation sentence. Accordingly, Wendy changes here not guilty plea to either a guilty plea or a no contest plea.

Important: In criminal court, there is no difference between a guilty plea and a no contest plea. In criminal court, the defendant will suffer the same criminal penalties regardless of whether he pleads guilty of no contest to a criminal charge.

For example, if two codefendants plead to a felony violation of conspiracy to commit murder (PC 182/187), and one defendant pleads guilty, and the other defendant plead no contest, then there is no difference in the criminal penalties that those two codefendants will receive (assuming all other circumstances of the case are the same).

Felony v. Misdemeanor in Criminal Court

A plea of no contest is the same as a plea of guilty, as far as criminal court penalties are same, regardless of whether the defendant pleads no contest or guilty to a misdemeanor or a felony. For more information on the difference between misdemeanor and felony crimes, see Infractions, Misdemeanors, and Felonies.

Civil Court Consequences

In California, if a criminal defendant pleads guilty to a crime in criminal court, regardless of whether that crime is classified as either a misdemeanor, or as a felony, the defendant could suffer civil court penalties based on that plea of guilt.

For example: David throws a stone at Goliath. David is thereafter charged with misdemeanor simple assault against Goliath. Whether David pleads guilty or no contest to the simple assault charge will make no difference for purposes of David’s criminal court penalties (i.e., jail, fines, restitution, etc.); however, if David pleads guilty to the simple assault charge in criminal court, as opposed to no contest, then Goliath will have an easier time proving David’s financial liability for David’s criminal conduct in civil court (i.e., Goliath’s lawsuit for damages against David). On the other hand, if David plead no contest to the assault charge in criminal, then Goliath will have a harder time proving David’s financial responsibility in civil court, despite the fact that David’s punishment in criminal court will be the same.

Felony v. Misdemeanor Civil Court Results

As stated, in California, a no contest plea and a guilty plea result in the same punishment in criminal court, and the civil consequences (lawsuit for damages) may be different depending on whether the defendant pleads guilty of no contest; however, this only applies to misdemeanor crimes. A plea of guilty or no contest to a felony crime, or any crime that could have been charged as a felony crime, will result in the same criminal and civil penalties.

Example I: John is charged with lewd and lascivious act on a child under the age of fourteen (PC 288(a), a felony. John pleads no contest to the charge to receive a lighter sentence (plea bargain). John may later be sued in civil court for his conduct even though he plead no contest, and his no contest plea can be used against him in civil court as proof that he committed the offense (i.e., lawsuit for intentional battery).

Example II: John is charged with a misdemeanor version of assault with a deadly weapon in criminal court. John plead no contest to the charge as a result of a plea bargain. The crime could have been charged either as a felony, or alternative as a misdemeanor (wobbler offense), depending on certain factors present in the case. John may be sued in civil court for his conduct even though he plead no contest, and his no contest plea can be used against him in civil court as proof that he committed the offense (i.e., lawsuit for intentional battery).

Example III: John is charged with misdemeanor annoy or molest a minor in criminal court. The crime can only be charged as a misdemeanor. John pleads no contest to the criminal charges. Later. John is sued in civil court for intentional battery by the same victim named in the criminal court case. John may be sued for his conduct, but the alleged victim may no use his misdemeanor no contest plea against him as proof of his conduct at the civil court proceedings.

Relevant Misdemeanor Criminal Charges

As stated, in California, a plea of guilt or no contest, to any felony crime, or any crime that could have been charged as a felony, will result in the same direct and indirect consequences and punishment, for both criminal court and civil court, and regardless of the language that is used at the plea stage (i.e., “guilty” or “no contest”). But in some misdemeanor criminal cases, the type of plea will not make a difference because there is no ‘named victim.”

For example, the crime of misdemeanor public intoxication does not usually have a ‘named victim.’ Therefore, there is no person that is going to sue the defendant regardless of how he pleads to a criminal violation of misdemeanor public intoxication. The is true for crimes like driving under the influence (DUI) without damage or injury to anyone, boating under the influence without damage or injury to anyone, soliciting prostitution, possession of drug paraphernalia, and more.

Misdemeanor Crimes for “No Contest” Plea

The most common California misdemeanor crimes where a no contest plea could make a difference in civil court for damages based on the defendant’s criminal conduct, include:

Annoy or Molest a Minor (PC 647.6), Disturbing the Peace (PC 415), DUI with Property Damage (VC 23152), Petty Theft (PC 484), Indecent Exposure (PC 314), Statutory Rape (PC 261.5), Simple Battery (PC 242), Simple Assault (PC 240), Harassing Phone Calls (PC 653m), Commercial Burglary (PC 459), Domestic Battery (PC 243(e)(1), Hit and Run Driving without Injury (VC 20002), Trespass (PC 602), Misdemeanor Sexual Battery (PC 243.4(E)(1)), Audio Recording Without Consent (PC 632), Unlawful Assembly (PC 408), Contract without a License (BP 7028).

Availability of a Plea

A defendant who wants to plead guilty, or no contest, to a particular criminal charge must first get the approval of the court. If the criminal court judge finds that the terms of a plea bargain are too lenient for the defendant, then the judge may not accept the defendant’s plea bargain. In this situation, the defendant may usually withdraw his plea and begin anew the plea bargain process with the district attorney.

Sometime, a district attorney, or the court, will accept a guilty plea from the defendant as part of a plea bargain, but the district attorney, or the court, will not accept a no contest plea from the defendant. The reasons for allowing a guilty plea, but not a no contest plea, include making the defendant accept full responsibility for his actions, allowing the alleged victim to more easily overcome the hurdles in civil court discussed above… namely, easier finding of defendant’s liability in civil court when the defendant pleads guilty, as opposed to no contest, and giving more closure to the alleged victims of crime, especially younger victim in child molestation type cases.

Also, a judge may not take the defendant’s guilty plea without ensuring that the defendant is made aware of the rights that he is relinquishing when he pleads guilty. These rights include the right to remain silent, the right to testify, the right to a jury trial, the right to an attorney, even if the defendant cannot afford an attorney, right to cross-examine witnesses, the consequences of possible prison, jail, and parole, possible restitution to victim, fines, mandatory registration, such as sex offender registration (if applicable), and more.

The court must also find that the defendant “knowingly and intelligently” understands and voluntarily gives up these rights before the court may enter a guilty plea or no contest plea.

Withdraw a Plea: A defendant has a right to withdraw his guilty or no contest plea in limited situations. For more information, see PC 1018 & Withdraw a Plea in Criminal Court.

For information about the differences between a "guilty" plea, "no contest," and "nolo contendere" plea in criminal court, contact our criminal defense attorneys today for a free consultation. Our team of experienced and dedicated criminal attorneys have successfully handled hundreds of misdemeanor and felony criminal cases in the Inland Empire, including the cities of Redlands, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, Ontario, Fontan, Rancho Cucamonga, Victorville, Hesperia, Yucaipa, and more. Call today!


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