If you’ve been charged with a crime, you must respond in court during the arraignment. There are a few different ways to respond, all known as “pleas.” It’s easy to understand the concept of a not guilty plea or a guilty plea, but there’s also a no contest plea. Sometimes no contest and guilty pleas are used interchangeably, but there are subtle differences. Read on to learn what that is and why someone might use that as their formal response to being charged.

What Is a No Contest Plea?

When someone pleads guilty to charges filed against them, they’re admitting the facts of the case are true and that they’re guilty of the crime. That allows the case to move directly to sentencing, negating the need for a jury trial. But when someone pleads no contest (also known as nolo contendere), they’re saying the facts of the case are true, but they aren’t admitting they’re guilty. In other words, they’re admitting the prosecution has enough evidence to prove the case, but the person charged still does not admit guilt. It’s sometimes referred to as a neutral plea, because the person charged neither admits to nor denies being guilty.

The difference is in the admission of guilt. In no contest pleas, not admitting guilt means the conviction can’t be used against the person charged in some civil cases, while a guilty plea could be used against them.

Are the Outcomes Different When Pleading No Contest Instead of Guilty?

Usually not. Convictions from either no contest or guilty pleas will receive the same sentencing and penalties (fines, etc.). The primary difference is that the no contest plea can’t be used against someone in certain civil cases.

There are situations in which a judge won’t allow a no contest plea. This can be when the evidence indicates the person is innocent, but may be under pressure to take the blame. In states that allow the death penalty (Massachusetts is not one of them), judges usually won’t allow a no contest plea.

What Are the Pros and Cons of a No Contest Plea?

They’re similar to the pros and cons of a guilty plea.

Pros. A no contest plea means there won’t be a trial. This is useful in cases where a trial’s outcome is uncertain or where the person charged would prefer not to have the case out in public. It also means the victim can’t use the plea in a civil case later to prove guilt.

Cons. Just because the person charged is not admitting guilt doesn’t mean the judge won’t give them the same consequences as a guilty plea. There could be the same amount of jail/prison time and/or fines. In addition, a no contest plea could be used against them in a criminal case.

How Does Pleading No Contest or Guilty Differ from Pleading Not Guilty?

When someone responds to criminal charges by pleading not guilty, there will potentially be a jury trial in which the prosecutor has to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That means the prosecutor has to convince the jury that the evidence presented so clearly shows the guilt of the person charged that there’s no way they could find them not guilty.

Beyond a reasonable doubt is a higher standard of proof required in criminal cases than in civil cases. For the latter, the threshold that must be met for a conviction is a preponderance of the evidence. That means the jury must believe there’s more than a 50% chance that the evidence indicates the person charged is guilty.

When Should Someone Plead Not Guilty or Guilty/No Contest?

The answer to that will vary by case since each case is unique. No contest pleas are often used as part of a plea bargain or in cases where the victim is likely to file a civil suit.

When someone is sure they’re not guilty or believes the evidence is too weak to convict them, they may enter a not guilty plea. However, there are other times when it’s wise to plead not guilty even if the person charged feels they have some guilt in the matter. It’s often a good idea to plead not guilty in a criminal case because of the high threshold of proof required to convict.

The reality in criminal cases is that if convicted, the person charged will then have a permanent criminal record that can affect them for several years, especially if it’s a felony rather than a misdemeanor. When a potential employer or landlord runs a background check, those charges will appear. In Massachusetts, landlords have restrictions on how quickly they can reject an application based on someone’s criminal record, but employers are largely free to reject an applicant based on the background check. That’s why it’s highly recommended that someone charged with a crime work with an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands the legal process and what it takes to get charges reduced or result in a jury finding the defendant not guilty.

How Do I Decide if I Should Plead No Contest or Guilty?

Call Toland Law, LLC, at 857-347-3701 to request a free consultation. Our team of knowledgeable, experienced criminal defense attorneys can walk you through the options for which plea to enter at the arraignment and the possible outcomes for each. Each has pros and cons, and we’ll help you determine the best approach for your case.

Toland Law, LLC