People often ask me, what is the difference between pleading no contest and guilty in a criminal case?
First, if you are facing a criminal charge, no matter what level of offense it may be, you should always retain the professional assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. A competent criminal defense attorney should be able to easily answer any question that you may have regarding all aspects of the criminal justice system.
The legal term “no contest” is the English version of the Latin phrase “Nolo contendere” which translates to “I do not wish to contend.”
For some citizens, it is far easier to say that they do not want to fight the criminal allegation against them than it is for them to openly admit that they were, in fact, guilty of the crime. A no contest plea, allows them to save face (or, depending on the facts, to actually speak the truth), by never formally admitting guilt. However, as a practical matter, the judge will still use their no contest plea to the same effect as if they had entered a plea of guilty. And without entering either a plea of guilty or no contest, the case would necessarily have to proceed to a formal trial.
Many citizens accused of a crime incorrectly believe that if they plead no contest instead of guilty, then that means that somehow they will not be convicted of the crime. This is 100% false. A plea of no contest will have the exact same consequence as if you had entered a plea of guilty.
The only relevant difference between a no contest plea and a guilty plea comes not within the criminal justice system, but with the consequences that it may have outside of the criminal justice system, specifically within the civil justice system.
In a civil proceeding, a prior no contest plea from a criminal case typically may not be used as evidence against you. As an example; let’s say that you were arrested for a driving while intoxicated offense in which an accident occurred as a result. It’s possible that beyond the criminal charge prosecuted by the State, you could also face a civil lawsuit for monetary damages filed by the victim of the car accident. If you were to plead guilty to the D.W.I. case, then that plea could be used against you in a future civil proceeding. In other words, you could not contest the fact that you were driving while intoxicated in the civil lawsuit if you have already plead guilty in a court of law to that very fact. If you had entered a plea of no-contest to the D.W.I., then that fact could not be used against you in the subsequent civil proceeding.
Unfortunately, in Ellis County, Texas, the reality is that the difference between a guilty plea and a no contest plea is often just an academic debate. This is because the Ellis County District Attorney’s Office will not allow for a citizen to enter a plea of no-contest in return for a negotiated plea agreement. Of course, you have the right to enter a plea of no contest on any allegation against you, but you don’t have the right to receive a negotiated plea agreement. And since more than 95% of cases are resolved through a negotiated plea agreement, the use of a no contest plea is virtually non-existent in the Ellis County District and County Courts at Law.
There is still one arena that a no-contest plea is common and normally allowed in Ellis County. That is in various City/Municipal and Justice of the Peace Courts. These Courts are charged with processing Class C (Fine Only) misdemeanor criminal cases. In these Courts, most judges will allow for a no contest plea. But remember a plea of no contest will still have the exact same consequence as a plea of guilty in that court.
I hope you found this basic explanation to be helpful. If you should have any other questions about the criminal justice system, please feel free to call my office to set up an appointment.
JOSEPH R. GALLO
Criminal Defense Attorney
114 East Main Street
Waxahachie, Texas 75165