If you are charged with a crime, one of the first steps in the process is an arraignment. At the arraignment, the judge will read you the charges against you. The judge will then ask you how you plead. You have three choices. You can enter a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest.
What do guilty, not guilty and no contest pleas mean?
The difference between pleading guilty and not guilty is simple and obvious. If you plead guilty, you are admitting that you committed the charged crimes. On the other hand, if you plead not guilty, you are denying that you committed the charged crimes.
If you plead no contest, you sort of fall in the middle. The Court treats your no-contest plea just like a guilty plea. It shows up on your record as a conviction. And the judge will sentence you as though you pleaded guilty. It is different than a guilty plea, however, in that your plea can’t be used against you down the road.
Why is a no-contest plea important to understand?
Most legal cases fall into two categories: criminal or civil. In criminal cases, you are charged with a crime, and the government must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil cases, you are sued, and the party that filed the complaint must prove their claims by a preponderance of evidence. This preponderance-of-evidence standard basically requires proof that something more likely than not happened.
A no-contest plea in a criminal case can make a big difference in a later civil case. If you plead guilty in a criminal case, you establish your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Because that is more proof than someone needs in a later civil case, you can automatically lose a civil case. If you plead no contest, though, a party that files a later civil case must still prove their claims against you.
An example helps illustrate the point. Imagine a prosecutor charges you with a crime after you punch someone in the face. In every state, this kind of altercation could lead to assault or battery charges. Imagine you plead guilty. Now, after your guilty plea, the person you punched sues you for money damages. They can use your plea as evidence against you to win the civil lawsuit. But, had you entered a no-contest plea instead, they wouldn’t be able to do so.
Should you plead guilty if you committed the crime as charged?
That’s a complicated decision. And it’s one that you really shouldn’t make without talking to a lawyer about first. It is very rare for someone charged with a crime to plead guilty at the beginning of a case. If you plead guilty at your arraignment, you generally don’t get a chance to see the evidence the government has against you or present a defense. You are simply admitting that you committed the crime and moving forward to sentencing.
Many people charged with a crime plead not guilty. This is true even if they are, in fact, guilty. They plead not guilty because it gives them a chance to look at their options. Do they have a defense? Could they reach a plea deal? Could the prosecution possibly dismiss the case? These are all possibilities that go away as soon as you plead guilty.
If you plead not guilty, you can always come back and change you plea to guilty later. You might do this because of the possibility of a plea deal, a lighter sentence or some other benefit. On the other hand, if you plead guilty, it is very hard to come back and changer your plea to not guilty later.
At the beginning of every criminal case, a judge will ask you how you plead. You have three choices: guilty, not guilty or no contest. Understanding which of these choices is best for you is a complicated process. For this reason, you may want to talk to a lawyer about the choices. More often than not, you won’t have a good opportunity to do so unless you plead not guilty at your arraignment.