Can a judge refuse to accept a “no contest” or nolo contendere plea?

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In many places, judges must consent to defendants entering no-contest (or nolo contendere) pleas. But, appeals courts sometimes find that judges have wrongly refused to accept such pleas.

Example: Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 provides that defendants “may plead not guilty, guilty, or (with the court’s consent) nolo contendere.” It further states, “Before accepting a plea of nolo contendere, the court must consider the parties' views and the public interest in the effective administration of justice.” (Fed. R. Crim. P. 11, subds. (a)(1), (a)(3); emphasis added.)

Example: An Ohio judge had a blanket policy of never accepting no-contest pleas. An appeals court found that this policy amounted to an “abuse of discretion” because the judge “arbitrarily refused to consider the facts and circumstances” of each case. (State v. Carter, 124 Ohio App. 3d 423 (1997).)

Example: A trial judge in Florida was wrong to refuse to accept a defendant’s no-contest plea where the defendant reserved the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. The plea identified the issue for appeal, and the judge and both sides agreed that the case rested on that issue. In addition, the defendant understood the circumstances and freely chose to enter the plea, the facts supported it, and the prosecution agreed to it. (Lamour v. State, 899 So. 2d 1256 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2005).)

For more about nolo contendere pleas, see What do you get in exchange for pleading guilty or no contest?

To find out whether a judge can—or is likely to—reject your no-contest plea, talk to a criminal defense attorney with practice experience in your area.

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