What Is the Difference Between Pleading No Contest Vs. Guilty?

The key difference between pleading no contest vs. guilty rests on the admission of guilt. Pleading no contest means accepting the punishment without admitting you committed the alleged offense. Entering a guilty plea, on the other hand, means that you admit that you committed the offense and accept the punishment. Another major difference between guilty and no contest pleas lies in the impact on civil suits. Guilty pleas can serve as evidence in civil cases, while no-contest pleas cannot be presented as supporting evidence in most civil claims. 

What Is a Guilty Plea?

A guilty plea is an admission of responsibility for an offense and acceptance of punishment associated with a conviction of that offense. This plea must be entered in court before a judge to generate a court record. You typically tell the court under oath that you know the crime charged and take full responsibility for it. 

You must demonstrate to the judge that you are pleading guilty knowingly and voluntarily. Also, you must demonstrate that you know that you are waving some rights by pleading guilty. A judge usually assesses these aspects by asking you if you know:

  • The type and severity of the offense(s) in question,
  • That entering a guilty plea means that you take full responsibility for the crime(s) charged,
  • The repercussions of the plea, and
  • That you are waving your right to legal representation, a jury trial, meeting and cross-questioning the complainant, and not implicating yourself. 

Once you answer in the affirmative, the judge usually accepts the plea and rules that it is fair. The case then moves to the sentencing phase. 

Guilty pleas are often part of plea deals. Innocent criminal defendants typically enter a guilty plea to get reduced charges or a lighter sentence. 

How a No Contest Plea Works

A no-contest plea means accepting the charges without taking responsibility for the crime(s) or asserting your innocence. This plea carries the same legal consequences as a guilty plea. 

Just like a guilty plea, you must demonstrate to the judge that you are familiar with the nature and legal implications of the plea. You must prove that you are pleading no contest knowingly and without coercion. 

A judge must tell you that a no-contest plea means giving up the same rights as a guilty plea. 

Entering a no-contest plea can be one of the conditions of plea negotiations with the prosecution team. Your lawyer could secure you a deal requiring you to enter a no-contest plea to the crime(s) charged in return for a lesser sentence. 

Pleading No Contest vs Guilty

Pleading no contest or guilty allows the criminal case to skip the lengthy trial proceeding and enter the sentencing phase of the criminal justice process. It also allows you to get a conviction and punishment for the crime(s) charged, no matter the plea you enter. 

These two types of pleas also have some differences, including: 

Admission of Guilt

This is the main aspect that sets a no-contest plea apart from a guilty one. A criminal defendant that pleads no-contest accepts the punishment and other legal consequences without taking responsibility for the crime (or crimes) charged. A defendant pleading guilty, on the other hand, admits responsibility for the crime and accepts the punishment. 

Impact on Civil Cases 

Criminal cases often result in a separate civil lawsuit. In other words, the complainant pursues damages from the criminal defendant by filing a separate lawsuit in an appropriate civil court. A guilty plea in a criminal proceeding can serve as proof for any civil case brought against you. 

A no-contest plea cannot act as supporting proof in a civil suit, as it is not an admission of guilt. This consideration, however, does not extend beyond misdemeanor offenses. Courts usually treat no-contest pleas involving felony-level crimes the same as a guilty plea. As such, they can serve as supporting evidence for civil cases.

Varying Restrictions by State 

Criminal defendants can enter a guilty plea in all jurisdictions without any restrictions. A judge can, however, decline a no-contest plea in certain instances. A perfect example is when an accused person is denying his or her guilt to the members of the press. Such pleas are unacceptable in states like Michigan, Indiana, and New Jersey. A no-contest plea is also unacceptable in a death penalty criminal proceeding in states where the death penalty is still applicable. 

When Is a No Contest Plea Better Than a Guilty Plea?

A no-contest plea is more beneficial than a guilty plea in certain instances. You may conclude that it is the best option for you after a review of your unique legal situation with your criminal defense attorney. The following are some instances when entering a no-contest plea is better than entering a guilty one: 

  • When you have a weak defense: A judge is likelier to find you guilty if your case proceeds to trial with a weak defense. So, it is better to plead no contest in this context and avoid a guilty verdict at trial.
  • When you want to lower your chances of paying damages in a civil case stemming from your criminal charges: As previously mentioned, a no-contest plea for a misdemeanor criminal case cannot act as supporting evidence for a separate civil claim arising from the same crime. A guilty plea, on the other hand, qualifies as supporting evidence for a civil suit stemming from your criminal charges. 
  • When you want to avoid the shame of your charges becoming public: Skipping the trial will help you avoid public scrutiny of your charges. 
  • When you want to avoid the stress, panic, and anxiety of waiting for a trial
  • When you want to increase your chances of getting a lighter sentence: You are likelier to get a lighter sentence if you plead no contest than if you let your case proceed to trial and be found guilty. 

How Can a Criminal Defense Attorney Help You? 

The possibility of getting imprisoned, slapped with hefty fines, and other significant legal consequences make it necessary to hire a skilled criminal defense attorney. Competent criminal defense attorneys can identify mistakes, weaknesses, and effective defense strategies by reviewing your case and available evidence. They can then use the information and evidence gathered to push for a case dismissal, charge reduction, or a lesser sentence. An attorney familiar with your state’s criminal law and with an exemplary record of defending criminal defendants can help you in the following ways: 

Review Your Charges and Available Evidence 

Your attorney can carefully examine your criminal charges and available evidence to develop the best defense strategy. The attorney can evaluate the case prospects and guide you on the best course of action. 

Engage the Prosecution in an Aggressive Plea Bargain 

A seasoned attorney must have worked with local prosecutors. Such an attorney has built a professional relationship with different prosecutors and knows how each works. For this reason, the attorney employs different strategies when negotiating with different prosecutors. Your attorney can negotiate for charges reduction, potential sentence lessening, or case dismissal. The attorney can then advise you on whether to plead guilty or innocent based on the terms of the plea agreement. 

Help You Handle the Emotional Aspects of a Criminal Trial

A criminal trial often leaves defendants depressed and embarrassed. Your attorney will walk with you throughout the criminal justice process, answering your questions and addressing your concerns every step of the way. He or she will also guide you on how to deal with the emotional aspects of the criminal trial, such as embarrassment, anxiety, or depression. 

Enlighten You on All Statutes, Precedents, and Regulations Relevant to Your Case 

An attorney who has practiced criminal law in your state can easily identify and enlighten you on all laws, precedents, and rules applicable to your case. The attorney can leverage this knowledge to prepare a solid defense. 

Gather Evidence and Crucial Witness Statements 

Your attorney can investigate your case, assemble evidence, and interview witnesses. The attorney can then review the assembled evidence and witness statements to devise strategies for disproving prosecution witnesses. 

Hire the Right Private Investigators 

Your case might require the involvement of private investigators. These investigators usually help attorneys with additional investigations and evidence gathering. Your attorney will use experience and professional network to hire the right investigators for your case.

Hire Competent Expert Witnesses 

Your case may require an expert witness to prove your innocence or disprove prosecution witnesses. Your attorney can hire the best expert witnesses for your case. 

Pushing for an Alternative Sentencing Program

A seasoned criminal attorney knows alternative sentencing programs that the prosecution and judge might accept. Such an attorney can determine the best alternative sentencing option for your situation and aggressively negotiate with the judge and prosecution for approval. 

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: State of Minnesota Minnesota State Court Minnesota Federal Court 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals State of Maryland

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