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Understanding differences between 'guilty' and 'no-contest' pleas

Because there are so many police and courtroom dramas on television, most people are familiar with the jargon used in those contexts. But because they are not generally explained, it is easy to misconstrue what many common legal phrases actually mean.

In today's post, we'll discuss a frequently misunderstood term in criminal cases: "no contest." Many people assume that a no-contest plea is the same thing as a guilty plea. While the sentencing outcomes are often the same for both pleas, they don't mean the same thing. And the differences between them can be pretty important.

A guilty plea is straightforward: you admit to being guilty of the charges against you, usually because you have been offered a plea bargain that will lessen the consequences you face. When you plead no-contest (or nolo contendere in the original Latin), you are not admitting guilt; but you are also not defending against the charges. Instead, you are conceding the charges and will accept the related sentence. In many cases, a no-contest plea is an acknowledgment that the evidence against you is strong enough to result in conviction.

The downsides to a plea of no-contest include:

  • The same sentence you likely would have received if you had pled guilty (absent a plea bargain)
  • The problem of court discretion - you cannot plead no-contest in Colorado without the consent of the court
  • A no-contest plea may not result in the same sentencing leniency you might get with a negotiated guilty plea

That being said, there are some definite advantages to pleading no-contest, for those who are allowed to do so. They include:

  • You can avoid going to trial, which could save you money and make you less likely to suffer reputation damage and embarrassment (if you are a public figure or if the case is high-profile)
  • If you allegedly committed a crime that could also be the subject of a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff cannot use your no-contest plea as evidence of guilt in a subsequent lawsuit

If you are facing criminal charges, how you are going to plead is just one of many important decisions that must be made. And in order to make fully informed decisions, you should seek the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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