Many cases are settled by guilty pleas, but prosecutors and judges sometimes agree to let defendants enter pleas of no contest (also called a nolo contendere plea). These pleas (by either name) have the same fundamental consequences as a guilty plea—the defendant is convicted and punished—but there's a key difference. In a no contest plea, the defendant doesn't admit guilt. So what's the point of this special plea? As explained below, for most defendants, the primary advantage of a no contest plea is that it often can't be used as an admission of liability in a related civil case.
Nolo contendere is Latin for "I do not wish to contend" or, more simply, "no contest." Each state has its own rules of criminal procedure, and some states use the term "no contest," while others refer to "nolo contendere." We'll stick with "no contest" for this article going forward (it's shorter).
Regardless of what term is used, a defendant who enters a plea of no contest accepts their conviction and punishment but doesn't admit guilt.
A defendant might enter a no contest plea if the prosecution has a really strong case, and the defendant knows a conviction is likely. But, because a related civil case is also pending, the defendant doesn't want to admit guilt. Admitting guilt in the criminal case will essentially serve to admit fault or prove liability in a related civil case.
Suppose Duke and Vince get into an argument-turned-fight. Duke fares better in the bout, but his "win" is short lived. Not only does Duke end up being charged with criminal assault, he's also sued by Vince for assault and battery in civil court. Vince is seeking monetary damages in the civil suit to pay for his hospital bills. If Duke decides to plead guilty in the criminal case, Vince gets a slam dunk in his civil case. Why? Because the standard of proof in a criminal case is beyond a reasonable doubt—a much more difficult standard to prove than the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard required in civil cases. So, if the burden is met in the criminal case, it's met in the civil case. To avoid this result, Duke reaches an agreement with the prosecutor to plead no contest to the criminal assault charge. Vince will need to prove Duke was at fault in his civil case.
That result sounds great. Why do defendants even bother entering a guilty plea if they can plead no contest? For a few reasons.
First, pleas of no contest are not a given. In most states, defendants don't have the right to enter a plea of no contest (like they do a guilty plea) without the permission of the judge, prosecutor, or both.
Part of the reason behind having a criminal justice system is for defendants to accept responsibility for their actions. Victims of crimes also deserve to know the defendant is being punished for causing them harm. Neither really happens with a no contest plea. Also, the criminal system is supposed to seek justice, not convictions. A defendant who's innocent shouldn't be convicted and punished.
Judges and prosecutors generally need to take into consideration whether enough evidence exists to justify a conviction and whether a no contest plea is in the best interests of justice.
Second, in some states, a no contest plea doesn't avoid an admission of fault in a related civil case. Take California, for instance. California rules allow a civil plaintiff to introduce evidence of a defendant's plea of no contest for any crime that could be punished as a felony. (Cal. Evid. Code § 1300 (2022).) If avoiding liability in a civil lawsuit is the defendant's main goal, it might not make sense to plead no contest depending on the particular state's law.
Finally, a no contest plea might not always turn out to be the best option for the defendant. Defendants who plead no contest give up their right to a trial and to have the prosecutor prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, among other constitutional rights. Also, a judge may agree to the plea but take the defendant's failure to accept responsibility into consideration when handing down the sentence.
Ultimately, varying and complex rules mean that you should consult a qualified criminal defense lawyer to understand the repercussions of any kind of plea in a given case and whether it's in your best interest.