In California, criminal law may be tricky to understand unless you have a legal background. There are several different ways to plead in a criminal case. The three most common pleas are not guilty, guilty, and no contest.
Most people understand the difference between not guilty and guilty. Pleading no-contest is very similar to pleading guilty—except for the admission of guilt. Learn what it means to plead no-contest and when you may wish to do so.
Understanding Different Types of Pleas in Court
In a criminal court case, a defendant will usually enter a plea during the arraignment, after hearing the charges they are facing. There are six pleas a defendant may enter at an arraignment:
- Not guilty
- No contest
- Double jeopardy
- Not guilty by reason of insanity
Of these pleas, the three most commonly entered pleas are not guilty, guilty, and no contest.
If you plead not guilty, this lets the court know you are claiming to be innocent of the charges. A criminal trial will follow, in which the prosecution will attempt to prove their case beyond a shadow of a doubt.
When a defendant enters a guilty plea, it means admitting to committing the crime. In this scenario, the case bypasses the trial and moves to sentencing.
Pleading guilty may allow you to reduce your charges. Criminal defendants often plead guilty as part of a plea bargain that provides a lighter sentence.
A defendant who pleads no contest, or nolo contendere, agrees to accept a conviction for the criminal charge. The case then proceeds to the sentencing stage without a trial. In California, a no-contest plea normally has the same legal consequences as a guilty plea.
The exception is when the defendant pleads no contest to a misdemeanor. With a misdemeanor, a no-contest plea cannot be used in a civil suit against the defendant.
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What Happens When You Plead No Contest?
Like a guilty plea, pleading no contest means that you will not attempt to defend yourself from the charges you face. It is essentially the same as admitting that you are guilty of the crime. When you plead no contest in California, a judge will:
- Accept the plea of no contest
- Confirm that you understand the consequences
- Tell you that your plea will be treated similarly to a guilty plea
- Make sure you know you are waiving the same rights as a guilty plea
Entering either a guilty plea or a no-contest plea means waiving your right to legal counsel, the right to a jury trial, and the right not to incriminate yourself. You also waive your right to confront your accuser.
What’s the Difference Between a Guilty Plea and No Contest?
Both guilty pleas and no contest pleas involve accepting a criminal conviction without going to trial. The difference applies to civil matters. Whether or not you are convicted of criminal charges, you may also be sued in civil court.
If you plead guilty to a misdemeanor offense, your guilty plea may be used as an admission of guilt in a civil lawsuit. If you plead no contest to a misdemeanor offense, your plea can’t be used against you in a civil lawsuit.
This exception only applies to misdemeanor charges. If you are charged with a felony in California, most jurisdictions will treat guilty pleas and no contest pleas the same. Pleading no contest to a felony offense may be used as an admission of guilt in civil litigation.
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When Should You Plead No Contest?
If you are charged with a misdemeanor and believe you have a strong case, your defense lawyer may advise you to take your case to trial. In this case, you would plead not guilty. If you are offered a lenient sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, your lawyer may advise you to take the plea bargain.
A defendant may choose to plead no contest to a misdemeanor when the charge involves an accident. If there was property damage or someone was injured, you can be sued in civil court. If you are charged with a misdemeanor, it may benefit you to plead no contest rather than guilty.
For instance, if you are charged with a DUI, you will face either a misdemeanor or a felony charge. An injured car accident victim can also sue you for damages. If you plead guilty in your criminal case, this plea can be used in a civil case. A no-contest plea accepts the conviction but does not admit guilt and cannot be used in a civil case.
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Can You Change Your Plea Later?
If a defendant enters a plea of guilty or no contest in California, it means waiving the right to a trial. The case may move to the sentencing stage within a matter of days.
If you enter a plea but change your mind before your case is settled, you may be able to withdraw your plea. A criminal defense attorney in California can review your case to help you decide what plea best suits your situation before your arraignment.