Defendants rarely plead guilty without first reaching agreement with the prosecution. (Nor should they—see How should I plead at arraignment?) Instead, they officially admit guilt only after receiving some kind of assurance from the prosecution. In the typical scenario, the defendant gives up the right to go to trial in exchange for the prosecution’s agreeing to:
- accept a conviction for a lesser offense than is available, or
- recommend lesser punishment than is possible.
(For more on the possible outcomes, see What are the different kinds of plea bargaining?)
Many cases are settled by guilty pleas, but prosecutors and judges sometimes agree to nolo contendere—or “no contest”—pleas. These have the same fundamental consequences as guilty pleas, with the defendant receiving a conviction and accepting some kind of punishment. But the defendant doesn’t actually admit guilt. For most defendants, the primary advantage of a no-contest plea is that it can't be used as an admission of liability in a related civil case. For example, take a defendant who is being prosecuted and sued for punching someone. In most places, in the civil lawsuit, the victim wouldn't be able to use a no-contest plea to prove the defendant admitted fault. (For further information, see Can a judge refuse to accept a “no contest” or nolo contendere plea?)