When a person is charged with a crime, one of the most important decisions that they will make is the type of plea that they will enter. You probably know guilty and not guilty pleas which are pretty self-explanatory, but there is also a third – no contest.

The type of plea you choose is a decision best made with the advice of a seasoned criminal defense attorney. Enter the wrong plea and things can go south for you very quickly. The process may look straightforward, but criminal law is extremely complex, and the consequences are often life-changing. Before making any decision about your plea you need to get the advice of a lawyer.

With that said, the two pleas that can carry a sentence are a no contest plea and a guilty plea. While they may look quite similar, they do have some distinct differences. Understanding each of the pleas and the most appropriate times to use them will help you better proceed in your case.

No Contest Plea and Guilty Plea Overview

At first glance, a no contest plea looks very similar to a guilty plea. However, when you look a little closer there are some distinct differences between the two, especially in how they are handled.

No Contest Plea – A no contest plea may also be called nolo contendere, a Latin phrase that means “I do not wish to contest.” When a defendant enters a plea of no contest, they admit that they accept a conviction for the charges against them bud do not admit that they committed the crime. Defendants who plead no contest in misdemeanor cases are protected from having it used against them in certain civil proceedings as an admission of guilt.

Guilty Plea – When a defendant enters a guilty plea in a criminal proceeding, it is an official admission of guilt and that they in fact committed the crime. When the defendant enters a plea of guilty, the case immediately enters the sentencing phase without a jury trial.

Guilty Plea in a Criminal Proceeding

When a defendant enters a plea of guilty, they must do so before a judge because only then can it become part of the court record. The defendant testifies under oath that they understand the crime they are charged with and they acknowledge that they are guilty of committing that crime. They must prove to the judge that they are entering the plea knowingly and intelligently. They also must prove to the judge that they understand that by entering a guilty plea they are giving up certain rights.

The judge will usually ask the defendant if they understand the nature of the crime they are being charged with, that the plea means they acknowledge that they committed the crime, the consequences of the plea, ad the rights they are waiving because of the plea.

A defendant who pleads guilty waives certain rights, including:

  • A trial by jury
  • To remain silent about the crime he or she is pleading guilty to
  • Confront and cross-examine their accuser
  • In some cases, filing an appeal

When the defendant acknowledges those things, the judge will usually determine whether such rights were given up voluntarily and knowingly, and will then approve the plea. At that point, the case moves to the sentencing phase without a jury trial.

Sometimes, defendants who are innocent will plead guilty to some crimes so that they can get a favorable sentence or get the benefit of pleading guilty to a lesser charge.

No Contest in a Criminal Proceeding

A no contest plea is much like a guilty plea, but they are technically admitting their guilt without directly admitting that they factually committed the crime. The sentence is the same as it would be if they had pled guilty.

The judge in a no contest case treats the plea the same as they would a guilty plea. They have to make sure that the defendant understands the consequences and nature of the plea, that the no contest plea is considered to be the same as a plea of guilty, and that the defendant is voluntarily and knowingly entering the plea. The defendant must also be informed that by pleading no contest that they are waiving their rights just as if they pled guilty.

The primary difference between a guilty plea and a no contest plea involves civil proceedings. In a misdemeanor case, when a defendant pleads no contest, the plea can’t be construed as an admission of guilt and used against them in a civil lawsuit that may be filed as a result of the criminal prosecution. This means that if the victim in a criminal case wants to sue the defendant, they would have to prove the liability of the defendant by a preponderance of the evidence, but they can’t use the no contest plea as evidence.

Felony cases are different in that the effect is identical to a guilty plea and in civil cases or any other legal proceedings it can be used as an admission of guilt.

A no contest plea is not always an option for defendants. In some cases, the prosecution can make a guilty plea a requirement of a plea bargain. Additionally, judges are not required to accept a no contest plea.

When is it Appropriate to Enter a No Contest Plea?

There are some times that a no contest plea is appropriate and even preferable to a guilty plea. 

Avoid trials that will be time-consuming and costly. Trials are expensive and time-consuming, depending on the charges. If the defendant does not want to go through that, a no contest plea may be a viable solution. They can make the plea, avoid the trial, and likely receive a reduced sentence as well.

The penalties are usually less severe. In felony cases, the defendant and/or their attorney will speak with the prosecutors before they enter a no contest plea. This may allow them the opportunity to negotiate a lesser sentence in exchange for the plea.

It can offer some protection from civil suits. A guilty plea or guilty verdict can be used against a person if a civil case comes out of their criminal case. A no contest plea is not an admission of guilt, so the defendant has not been proven guilty. Therefore, guilt cannot be used in a civil case.

Offers a certain degree of privacy. A no contest plea means that the trial will not move forward. There will be no public hearing of the evidence against the person and other details of their life that they do not want to be made public.

Pleas Under Federal Law

The Department of Justice Criminal Resource Manual addresses pleas and lays out specific instructions on how they are to be handled.


Under this rule:

  • A defendant may plead guilty or not guilty. If the court consents, they can plead no contest (nolo contendere)
  • If the defendant refuses to enter a plea or fails to appear, the court is required to enter a plea of not guilty. 
  • In a criminal case, the plea of nolo contendere has the effect of a guilty plea.
  • The court will only accept a plea of no contest when it has given its consent and only after it gives due consideration to the views of the parties and the interest of the public in the effective administration of justice.
  • The court does not have the authority to accept a plea of guilty or a plea of no contest until it has determined that the defendant is capable of understanding that the plea, they are making is voluntary.
  • The court is prohibited from entering a judgment upon a guilty plea unless it first determines that there is a factual basis for the plea except when there is a charge of criminal forfeiture since that is part of the sentence and not the offense.
  • Before accepting a plea of guilty or no contest, the court is required to address the defendant personally in open court to inform them and determine that they understand:
    • The nature of the charge to which the plea is offered, and the mandatory minimum and maximum penalties as provided by law, to include the effect of any supervised release term or special parole. It also must inform the defendant of any requirements of the court regarding any applicable sentencing guidelines, and that the court may also order restitution to any victim of the offense.
    • If the defendant does not have legal representation, that they have the right to legal representation at every stage of the proceeding against them and that if they do not have the ability to obtain counsel, an attorney will be appointed to represent them.
    • The defendant has the right to enter a not guilty plea or to persist in the not guilty plea if they have already made it. They also have the right to be tried by a jury and at the trial, the defendant has the right to legal representation, the right to cross-examine and confront witnesses that are called against them, and the right to not be compelled to incriminate themselves.
    • If the court accepts the defendant’s plea of guilty or no contest, there will not be a further trial of any kind, so when they enter that plea, they effectively waive the right to a trial.
    • If the court intends to question the defendant under oath, on the record, and in the presence of counsel about the offense to which they have pleaded, their answers may later be used against them in a prosecution for perjury or false statement.
  • If the court fails to comply by informing the defendant of every conceivable consequence of sentencing, it does not necessarily entitle the defendant to relief.
  • The court is prohibited from accepting a plea of guilty or no contest without determining that the defendant is making the plea voluntarily and it is not the result of threats, force, or of promises apart from a plea agreement. This must be done in open court where the defendant is addressed personally.
  • The court must ask the defendant if their willingness to plead guilty or no contest is the result of a prior discussion between the defendant, the defendant’s attorney, and the attorney for the government.

What is a Guilty Plea Bargain?

When the prosecution or government has a strong case against a defendant, they may offer a plea bargain. This has many benefits. It can help avoid a costly, lengthy trial, allows both sides to avoid the uncertainty of a trial, and may also reduce the defendant’s sentence.

A defendant cannot plead guilty if they did not actually commit the crime. If they did commit the crime, and want to plead guilty, then they must go before a judge in open court to enter their plea of guilty. Once they admit to the crime, they automatically admit their guilt and agree to be sentenced by the judge who presides over their case. They skip the trial and go directly to the sentencing hearing.

Sometimes the prosecutor will recommend a lesser sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. Ultimately though, the judge decides how the defendant will be punished. The plea-bargaining negotiation is private most of the time, but there are always exceptions to the rules, especially when trying to resolve various disputes with the government in open court. 

If you have been charged with a crime and are considering your options, don’t make a move until you have talked to a criminal defense attorney. Call the Litvak Law Firm for your free consultation at (718) 989-2908 and get the real advice you can use from a knowledgeable, experienced lawyer. Don’t wait to see what happens and don’t go into a plea bargain without legal representation, make sure your rights and interests are protected.