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What does pleading 'no contest' mean?

Readers have probably seen or read news reports about a person charged with a serious crime who pleaded “no contest” to the charges. This can be confusing to those without a legal background who thought that you either plead “guilty” or “not guilty” in court.

In fact, a no contest, or nolo contendere, plea is available in almost every state when certain charges are involved. Pleading no contest means the defendant is conceding to the charges against him or her without mounting a defense -- or admitting guilt.

Functionally, pleading no contest is quite similar to pleading guilty. If the law allows for a no contest plea and the judge accepts it, there is no trial and the proceedings go to the sentencing phase. The plea may be part of a plea bargain, the defendant may have agreed to make the plea in exchange for the prosecution reducing the charges against him or her, or recommending a lesser sentence.

Even if there is no plea deal, avoiding trial may by itself be worth it to the defendant. Besides the uncertainty of the process, there may be certain facts that would come to light during trial that the defendant would rather not become public knowledge.

Finally, there are other implications to your decision on what to plead. A no contest plea cannot be used as evidence against a criminal defendant who is sued in civil court. If the defendant is anticipating a lawsuit, this could make a big difference.

Obviously, a no contest plea means you are giving up your right to contest the evidence against you in court. This is not a decision to make lightly, but if a dismissal or not guilty verdict seems unlikely, pleading no contest or guilty may be your best option.

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