Can a "No Contest" Plea Bite You Later in Life?

"No contest" pleas are like guilty pleas, except when it comes to civil liability.

Suppose you've been charged with reckless driving, a misdemeanor in your state. If you plead "no contest," will you have a conviction on your record—and can the no-contest plea be offered into evidence against you if you are sued in civil court?

A no-contest plea, known often by its Latin name "nolo contendere," has the same primary legal effects as a guilty plea. If you plead no contest to a criminal charge, you will have a conviction on your record, just as though you had pleaded guilty or been convicted after a trial.

A potentially big advantage of a no-contest plea compared to a guilty plea has historically been that a no-contest plea could not be offered into evidence in a civil case.

Let's say that your alleged reckless driving damaged a storefront. The owner of the store might file a civil complaint against you seeking to obtain a money judgment for the damage you caused to the building. If you plead guilty in the criminal case, the building owner might be able to offer that plea into evidence in the civil case to prove you are responsible for the damage. But if you plead no contest, the owner likely cannot offer that plea into evidence in the civil case. (Of course, the law in your jurisdiction will determine the rules.)

For much more on this area of law, including as it relates to civil cases, see our article on what pleading no contest means.

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