This is the first entry in BeenVerified’s legal term library designed to help you better understand public record information, criminal records and related terminology. The information in this article is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.
When faced with a criminal charge many people assume the defendant has just two options in responding with a plea: guilty or not guilty. You may have learned to assume this from watching episodes of Law & Order where the prosecutor offers the accused an easier ride if they admit their guilt, or conversely threaten to “throw the book at them” if they fight the charge with a plea of not guilty and take the case to a court trial. Guilty or Not Guilty, that’s all there is to decide, right?
Well, actually there is a third plea option in many cases: no contest.
According to Law.com’s legal dictionary, no contest is a plea where the defendant states that he or she will not contest the criminal charge against them. While a judge will treat a plea of no contest (also known as nolo contendre) as the same as a plea of guilty, there are some important nuances to a no contest plea.
The first is that a no contest plea allows a defendant to avoid personally admitting guilt, which is often a strategy used by defendants worried that a civil suit could follow their criminal prosecution. A no contest plea cannot be used in civil court against a defendant as an admission of guilt in the same way a straight guilty plea could be (a notable exception is in Virginia state law). However, many states severely limit the use of no contest pleas or put a high burden on accepting such a plea.
Second, “no contest” pleas are often the result of a plea bargain. Think back to our Law & Order example at the opening of this post. Prosecutors will sometimes allow defendants to plea no contest in order to avoid a trial, which unlike on TV, most prosecutors prefer to avoid. In exchange for not contesting the charges against them, defendants often receive reduced charges, a lighter sentence and the ability of to avoid admitting guilt.
So while “no contest” may seem like a third and confusing plea option, you can think of it as a close cousin of a “guilty” plea when it comes to criminal law.
Notable “no contest” Pleas:
Lindsay Lohan , Movie Actress – Misdemeanor Theft (2015)
Spiro Agnew, Former Vice President – Federal Tax Evasion (1973)
Michael Irvin, Former NFL Player – Cocaine Possession (1996)