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No Contest Plea

What is a “No Contest” Plea?

In a California criminal case, pleading no contest (nolo contendere) means agreeing to accept a conviction for a crime but not admitting to being factually guilty when entering the plea.

However, realistically, a no-contest plea has the same effect as a guilty plea, but there is an exception. A no-contest plea to a misdemeanor crime can't be used against you as evidence in some civil cases, but a guilty plea could. 

What is a “No Contest” Plea?
A "no contest" plea means to accept a conviction for the crime without admitting factual guilt.

After you enter a no-contest plea, you are guilty of the criminal charges to which you pleaded, and then the case can proceed to a sentencing hearing. Also, when you plead no contest, you waive your right to counsel, jury trial, not to incriminate yourself, and to confront and cross-examine anyone accusing you of the crime.

Sometimes, you can withdraw your plea as defined under California Penal Code 1018 PC. This is called a “motion to withdraw a plea” and must be filed before sentencing or within six months of a probationary sentence.

Many defendants are unaware of the implications of a “no contest” plea in a California criminal case and do not understand what it means.

Simply put, if you are accused of a crime, there might be a situation where it's in your best interest to accept the penalty without admitting guilt. For example, suppose you are facing criminal charges that could lead to civil lawsuits. In that case, a plea of "no contest" might help you. 

Like other states, in California, most criminal cases are resolved before trial through a plea agreement with the prosecutor. This means you are deciding to plead guilty rather than take your chances in a trial. Let's review further below.

Pleading “No Contest” – Quick Facts

There are several essential facts you should consider in “no contest” pleas under California criminal laws, such as the following:  

  • Pleading no contest in a criminal proceeding means you are accepting a conviction for the crime you are charged with but not admitting factual guilt.
  • A no-contest plea is a legal option for defendants who do not want to admit guilt but do not want to fight the charges.
  • “Nolo contendere” means “I do not want to contest.” It indicates you are not technically entering an admission of guilt but are allowing the court to impose their punishment.
  • Before pleading "no contest,” the judge must accept the plea and ensure you understand it will be considered the same as a guilty plea.
  • The judge must ensure you voluntarily entered your no-contest plea and were not coerced.
  • Your rights are typically waived in written form called a "Tahl waiver."
  • After the plea, you will proceed to a sentencing hearing, where a judge will impose your sentence.
  • Pleading no contest means the court will find you guilty.  

What Are the Legal Implications?

You waive certain Constitutional rights when you plead no contest, as with a guilty plea. As noted, the judge must ensure you know these rights and confirm you voluntarily waive them by singing a "Tahl Waiver." The rights you are agreeing to give up include the following: 

  • The right to a jury trial,
  • The right to confront and cross-examine witnesses; and
  • The right not to incriminate yourself. 

Can You Withdraw the Plea?

In some limited situations, under California Penal Code 1018 PC, you can withdraw a plea of no contest by filing a motion to withdraw a plea. However, as noted, it must occur before sentencing or within six months of a probationary sentence. Notably, judges will only grant this motion if you can show good cause, such as the following:

  • You did not understand the circumstances of their plea,
  • You did not voluntarily enter the plea,
  • A language barrier prejudiced you,
  • You felt coerced into making the no-contest plea,  
  • Your defense lawyer did not provide adequate representation during the plea negotiation process, or you didn't have legal counsel to explain the ramifications of the plea.

If the judge grants the motion, then your criminal case will start over at the arraignment

How Is No Contest Different from Pleading Guilty?

About the criminal consequences, there is no difference between a no-contest and a guilty plea, all without admitting guilt, as you will be convicted of the crime and face the same penalties, such as the following:

  • Jail time,
  • Fines,
  • Probation,
  • Criminal record.

The main difference is how your plea can be interpreted in other cases. When you plead guilty, you admit that you committed the crime, which can be used against you in a related civil case

However, a no-contest plea in a misdemeanor case cannot be used to admit guilt in a related civil trial. This is an essential factor because a guilty plea can be used to establish liability under the law. Notably, this only applies to California misdemeanors. In felony cases, a no-contest plea is considered an admission of guilt in a related civil suit. 

What Are the Main Reasons for Pleading No Contest?

Your California criminal defense lawyer might recommend pleading no contest instead of guilty in a criminal case for different reasons, such as the following:

  • Sometimes, pleading no contest is part of a negotiated plea agreement with the prosecution for reduced charges and a lenient sentence.
  • When pleading no contest, you avoid the risks of going to trial, such as unpredictable jury decisions and harsher penalties after a conviction.
  • In misdemeanor cases, as noted, a no-contest plea cannot be used to admit guilt in a related civil case, protecting you from additional liability.
  • Pleading no contest is not admitting guilt, which could help you maintain your professional public image.
  • It could help you maintain your professional license, which could be in jeopardy after admitting guilt in a crime. 

What Conditions Must be Confirmed by the Judge? 

As noted, the court has discretion over accepting a no-contest plea, but there are typically no reasons for the judge not to take it. However, the following conditions must be met before a judge agrees with a plea of no contest: 

  • Confirm that you understand the nature of the charges against you and the possible consequences of a no-contest plea.
  • Confirm that you are aware that the consequences of your no-contest plea are the same as those of a guilty plea.
  • Confirm that you are voluntarily entering the no-contest plea without coercion or duress and
  • Confirm that you voluntarily waive the other rights described above.

Contact our law firm, Cron, Israels & Stark, in Los Angeles, CA, for a free case evaluation. 

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