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Nolo Contendere Plea: Definition & Meaning

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

In this lesson, we learn about the plea of nolo contendere, which is a different plea from guilt or innocence in the American legal system. This lesson helps to better understand the complexities of our criminal court.

Nolo Contendere Defined

A person who is accused of a crime in the United States has several options for what to plead when presented with the charges against him or her. A person can say that they are innocent, guilty, guilty by reason of insanity, plead no contest, or enter an Alford plea. We will discuss the plea of nolo contendere here and contrast it with the other types of pleas.

For starters, nolo contendere is Latin for no contest. To say that you plead no contest means that you do not admit guilt or claim innocence; rather, you agree to take the punishment for the crime. Why would a person agree to serve a sentence but not admit guilt? Well, the main reason is that an admission of guilt may lead to further civil charges later. The family of the victim, for example, may sue their daughter's murderer to attempt to gain some monetary damages in addition to the criminal sentence.

When a person enters this plea, he or she will not allow the jury to make a decision on their case, either. Instead, it will go immediately before the judge to decide sentencing. Another reason a person may enter this plea is to avoid a more serious punishment that they may get from the jury. Juries may be biased against certain defendants or there may not be sufficient evidence to help the defendant prove his or her innocence effectively.

Judicial Discretion

A plea of no contest is not an automatic option for a defendant. It is up to the judge's discretion to choose whether or not to accept this plea. If the judge is concerned that the defendant does not understand what he or she is saying or the consequences of immediate sentencing, the judge can refuse to let them enter this plea.

A judge may also refuse a plea of no contest if the defendant does not speak English well (and may be confused by a language barrier), has psychological issues or intellectual disabilities, has perhaps less responsibility for the crime than one of the co-defendants (e.g., driving the getaway car rather than committing murder), or has not spoken with an attorney. These are all good reasons why the judge may feel that a no contest plea is not really in the defendant's best interest.

Differences Between Types of Pleas

There are many different types of pleas that can be entered after a person is accused of a crime. To understand a plea of no contest, it's helpful to look at the other types of pleas and compare.

A plea of guilty is an admission of responsibility for a crime. You agree that you committed the crime identified by the court and agree to submit to the court's punishment as decided by the judge. The case will not continue to proceed with trial and goes right to sentencing.

A plea of innocence, or not guilty, is a denial of responsibility for a crime. You are telling the court that you did not commit the crime that you are accused of and wish to go to trial to attempt to convince the jury of your innocence. You accept that there is a possibility that the jury can find you guilty, and you will serve that sentence, but hope that you will be freed.

A plea of guilty by reason of insanity is one where you admit guilt, but claim that you were unable to understand the possible consequences of the crime when it happened. You may be mentally ill or have had a temporary psychological condition that impaired your reasoning or judgment. This is a difficult claim to prove in court because you must demonstrate through psychological testimony and evidence that you cannot be held accountable for the crime. This plea will still result in a trial, but it will focus on whether or not you are competent to understand what you did. Likely punishment will include psychological treatment at an in-patient facility.

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