When defending a case, the priority is always to have your client exonerated. Every case should be approached with that as the objective. All available evidence should be examined with that in mind. But, what happens if the evidence needed for the state to gain a conviction is clearly present?
When the prosecutor clearly has the upper hand, many cases are resolved by plea agreement. This means that the accused will enter a plea of either guilty or no contest, also referred to as nolo contendere. What are the differences between the two pleas and what are the legal effects?
When there is a plea bargain, generally the defendant will enter a plea of guilty. A guilty plea is a judicial admission that the accused committed the acts that the state has alleged which constitute a criminal offense. In felony cases, these allegations are contained in the state’s indictment. In misdemeanors, they are contained in a document called an information.
The other alternative is a plea of no contest to the prosecutor’s allegations. A plea of no contest is not an admission that the accused committed the act alleged in the charging instrument. Pleading no contest serves only as an admission that there is sufficient evidence for a judge or jury to find the defendant guilty, and that the defendant has chosen to not challenge that evidence.
The legal effect of the two pleas is very similar. Either is sufficient for the judge to find the defendant guilty, or that sufficient evidence exists to establish the defendant’s guilt, if the defendant receives deferred adjudication. There are several aspects of the two pleas which would at times make a plea of no contest more advantageous for the defendant.
First, in a plea of no contest, because the defendant does not admit that that committed the alleged acts, a defendant who believes that he did not commit the crime may except a punishment from the court. This limits a defendant’s potential exposure that is inherent in going to trial.
Second, unlike a plea of guilty, a plea of no contest may not be used against a defendant in a civil proceeding. This fact can have significant importance when a criminal defendant could be held liable civilly for monetary damages caused by their actions in commission of the crime. For instance, when a person is arrested for DWI and there is an accident it can be very important to plead no contest instead of guilty in a plea bargain agreement. A no contest plea would allow the defendant to dispute the issues of whether he was driving, and whether he was intoxicated if sued civilly for monetary damages resulting from the accident.
It is within the discretion of the court to except or reject any plea. Most judges, however, are more hesitant to except no contest plea then a guilty plea. It is important to make the nature of the plea, either no contest or guilty, part of plea negotiations with the prosecutor.