"No Contest" Pleas in California Criminal Cases
Let's review the implications of a “no contest” plea in a California criminal case to understand exactly what it means. When someone is accused of a crime, there may be instances in which that defendant wishes to accept the penalty without admitting guilt.
This defines the plea of "no contest," also known as "nolo contendere." If you are facing criminal charges that may also lead to civil lawsuits, there are times when a plea of "no contest" may help you.
Most criminal cases are resolved before trial through a plea agreement with the prosecutor. In other words, a defendant will decide to plead guilty rather than take their chances on the outcome of a trial.
Pleading no contest in a criminal proceeding means that the defendant agrees to accept a conviction for the crime. Still, they are not admitting to being factually guilty when entering their plea.
However, before you can plead "no contest,” the judge must accept the plea and ensure you understand that the plea will be considered the same as a guilty plea, and the court will find you guilty. The judge must ensure you voluntarily entered your no-contest plea and were not coerced.
These rights are typically waived in written form called a Tahl waiver. Once the requirements are met, you will proceed to a sentencing hearing, where the judge will impose your sentence.
Sometimes, under Penal Code 1018 PC, a defendant can withdraw a plea of no contest by filing a motion to withdraw a plea, but this must occur before they are sentenced or within six months of a probationary sentence.
A judge would only grant such a motion when the defendant can show good cause, such as they didn't understand the circumstances of their plea, did not voluntarily enter the plea, or we not represented by a competent lawyer when they entered their plea.
Suppose the judge decides to grant this motion. This means their case would start over at the arraignment phase. Let's review this topic in more detail below.
What Is a Plea of No Contest?
A no-contest plea is a legal option for defendants who do not wish to admit guilt but do not want to fight the charges against them.
When entering a no-contest plea, the defendant essentially states that they will accept the court's decision regarding sentencing without admitting guilt.
“Nolo contendere” means “I do not wish to contest.” A no-contest plea means they are not technically entering an admission of guilt but are allowing the court to determine their punishment.
How Does a No-Contest Plea Differ from a Plea of Guilty?
In terms of criminal consequences, there is effectively no difference between a no-contest and a guilty plea.
If you plead no contest, you will be convicted of the crime in question, face penalties such as probation, fines, and jail time, and have a criminal record—all without actually admitting guilt. The primary difference is how your plea can be interpreted in other cases.
When a defendant pleads guilty, they admit to committing the crime, and this admission can be used against them in any related civil case.
On the other hand, a no-contest plea for a misdemeanor case cannot be used as an admission of guilt in a related civil trial. This is important because a guilty plea can be used to establish liability under California law.
NOTE: This only applies in misdemeanor cases in California. For felony offenses, a no-contest plea can still be treated as an admission of guilt in a related civil suit. So, there is no difference between a guilty plea and a plea of no contest when facing felony charges.
What Are the Common Reasons for Entering a No Contest Plea?
There are several reasons why your attorney might recommend pleading no contest instead of guilty in a criminal case:
- Civil lawsuit concerns: In misdemeanor cases, only a no-contest plea cannot be used to admit guilt in a related civil case, potentially protecting you from additional liability.
- Maintain professional reputation: Pleading no contest allows you to avoid admitting guilt, which can be beneficial for maintaining your professional standing and public image. It may also benefit you if your professional license comes under investigation due to a criminal conviction.
- Negotiated plea agreement: In some cases, pleading no contest may be part of a negotiated plea agreement with the prosecution, resulting in reduced charges or a more lenient sentence.
- Avoid potential risks of trial: By pleading no contest, the defendant avoids the uncertainties and risks of going to trial, such as unpredictable jury decisions and potentially harsher penalties.
What Are the Legal Implications?
When you enter a plea of no contest, as with a guilty plea, you should know that you are waiving certain Constitutional rights.
The judge will make sure you are aware of these rights and confirm you are voluntarily waiving them by having you sign what is known as a "Tahl Waiver." The rights you are giving up include:
- The right to a jury trial;
- The right to confront and cross-examine witnesses; and
- The right not to incriminate yourself.
What Are the Conditions for Accepting a No Contest Plea?
As noted above, in California, the court has discretion over accepting a no-contest plea—although there is usually no reason for the judge not to do so. That said, the following conditions must be confirmed before a judge will accept such a plea:
- That you understand the nature of the charges against you and the potential consequences of the no-contest plea;
- That you are aware that the consequences of your plea are the same as those of a guilty plea;
- That you are voluntarily entering the plea without coercion or duress; and
- That you voluntarily waive the rights described above.
Can You Withdraw a No-Contest Plea?
Given that a no-contest plea results in waiving your rights plus a conviction, there may be instances where a defendant might want to withdraw their plea.
California law permits you to file a Penal Code 1018 PC Motion to Withdraw a Plea before your sentencing or within six months of a probation sentence if you can show good cause. Examples of good causes may include, but are not limited to, the following:
- You believe you entered the no-contest plea without fully understanding the consequences;
- Your attorney did not provide adequate representation during the plea negotiation process, or you didn't have legal counsel to explain the ramifications of the plea;
- A language barrier prejudiced you;
- You felt coerced into making the plea.
To review the details of your case, you can contact our law firm by phone or through the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, CA.