Few criminal law concepts are as simple and as misunderstood as the term “nolo contendere”, otherwise called “no contest”. The two terms say the same thing in different languages, so I’ll just use “no contest” in this piece.
In my practice, I’ve encountered many people who seem to have the misguided notion they shouldn’t or couldn’t face consequences in criminal cases because they plead no contest, rather than guilty. Even on the very day I wrote this piece, a prospective client was stunned to learn she had been convicted after she plead no contest, even saying to me “but I plead no contest to that, so how can they still hold it against me?” If you do, they can and will because a criminal court won’t treat you like an innocent person.
How someone is treated in a criminal case doesn’t change because of a plea of no contest instead of guilty. If you plead no contest, you will be treated exactly the same by the court, as if you had plead guilty. No contest does not mean you “get away with” anything or won’t be held accountable. You’ll get no better treatment than someone who pleads guilty.
There is a significant difference between guilty and no contest in a completely different kind of case, however.
What’s the difference between no contest and guilty?
Imagine you were a driver involved in a car wreck and were criminally charged with DWI from the incident. You’d have a criminal case, but you also could be sued in a “civil” case to claim you liable for damaging property or causing injury.
If you plead guilty to DWI, the legal elements (parts of the crime) which prove DWI would be legally established beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof in a civil case is lower than in a criminal case. Therefore, the factual elements established in the DWI would already be proven more than enough to establish them as facts in the civil case.
A plea of no contest to the DWI, however, does not establish the facts for the civil case, and the civil lawsuit would still need to be proven independently of the criminal case.
The real difference is how the plea is used in civil cases, not criminal cases. The same applies to a simple traffic ticket, which many people do not realize is a criminal case.
So, no contest and guilty are two separate ways to plead to a criminal charge, and they are usually almost the same thing for most purposes. Prosecutors may insist upon plea of guilty, and judges may reject a plea of no contest under some circumstances, though. As far as the law is concerned, you get no more real benefit in your criminal case by pleading no contest than you do pleading guilty.