You probably know that you can choose to plead guilty or not guilty to criminal charges against you. But did you know there is a third option: nolo contendere? Find out what it means to plead this third option, and why it may be the best resolution for your criminal case.
The legal system loves Latin. The phrase “nolo contendere” is one of several left over Latin phrases that can make it hard for everyday people to understand their rights. Strictly translated, “nolo contendere” means “I do not want to compete” -- in other words, “no contest.” In the Connecticut criminal court system, a nolo contendere plea, sometimes called a “nolo” or “no contest” plea, means that you, as the criminal defendant, agree to accept the sentence imposed on you without a fight.
These pleas don’t happen very often, and it is even more rare to plead nolo contendere as charged. More often, a no contest plea is the result of negotiations between your criminal defense attorney and the prosecutor. You may choose to accept the sentence under a nolo plea if you believe a trial will not work in your favor. In those cases, it may be best to plead to a lesser charge, rather than taking your chances with the jury.
There is no difference in sentencing whether you enter a plea as nolo contendere or guilty. In either case, the judge may review your criminal history and the circumstances of the case and enter a sentence that could include jail time, probation, community service, fines, costs, and restitution. Unlike Connecticut’s pretrial diversionary programs, a nolo contendere plea will still result in a conviction. Even after you successfully complete your probation, a nolo contendere plea will still show up on your record.
The difference between guilty pleas and no-contest pleas is far more technical. If you plead guilty to criminal charges the judge will ask you questions to establish that the crime has been committed, and that you commited it. That means you will need to admit what you did wrong. Because a nolo contendere plea simply declines to fight the charges, you will not have to make any admissions at all. The judge will simply impose a sentence based on the prosecutor’s version of the events.
Why would you give up your right to a trial? Why would you excuse the prosecutor from proving your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? Often, it comes down to what you can or will say in court, and what gets put on the record.
To illustrate this, consider a case of a drunk driving auto accident. After the crash, the police found Allen unconscious in his vehicle. The driver and passenger in the other car, Beth and Casey, were both severely injured. All three were taken to the hospital, where Allen’s blood was tested for alcohol. The result was .15% blood alcohol by volume -- nearly twice the legal limit. Now, Allen has been charged with drunk driving and two counts of second degree assault with a motor vehicle. At the same time, Beth and Casey have filed a personal injury lawsuit against him to recover damages for their injuries.
One reason Allen and his attorney could consider entering a nolo contendere plea may be his lack of memory related to the events. Remember that a guilty plea must be supported by a record of what happened and who did it. If Allen’s concussion or heavy alcohol use prevent him from remembering whether he consumed alcohol leading up to the car crash, he may need to plead nolo contendere to take advantage of a plea agreement reducing the charges.
More often, a nolo contendere plea is a strategic choice. If Allen admits to drinking and driving in criminal court, Beth and Casey will be able to use those admissions against him in their civil lawsuit. However, if Allen maintains a plea of not guilty and takes the matter to trial, Beth and Casey will also get access to everything that comes out in front of the jury: the blood tests, the police testimony about the accident, and any eye-witness testimony about the crash.
In cases like this, it is often the best choice to make as small a record as possible in the criminal case, entering a nolo contendere plea and accepting a sentence to reduced charges. Then, Allen can turn his attention to the civil lawsuit, where Beth and Casey will still have to prove that he was at fault for the auto accident without the benefit of the record made at a criminal trial.
When you are facing both criminal charges and a civil lawsuit, you need a lawyer who understands both sides of your case. Based in Fairfield, Connecticut, The Lebedevitch Law Firm handles a variety of criminal defense and personal injury lawsuits in Fairfield and New Haven counties. We can help review your options and decide if a nolo contendere plea is right for you. Contact us for a free phone or video conference consultation.