The vast majority of California criminal cases are resolved before taking the case to trial. They are settled through a plea agreement as most defendants will plead guilty rather than face the uncertainty of the outcome of a trial. While the meaning of a “guilty” plea is commonly understood, a “no contest” plea needs further explanation.
The term "nolo contendere" means "I don't wish to contest." A guilty plea and a no contest plea will result in a criminal conviction. However, when you plead "no contest,” you are not admitting guilt but are allowing the court to determine your punishment.
Before you can plead "no contest,” the judge has to accept the plea and make sure you understand that the plea will be considered the same as a guilty plea and the court will find you guilty. The judge also has to ensure you are voluntarily entering your no contest plea and were not coerced in any way.
The main benefit of entering a "no contest" plea in California rather than a guilty plea is apparent in misdemeanor cases.
Once you plead "no contest" in a misdemeanor case, the plea can't be used against you as an admission of guilt in a situation where a civil proceeding is pursued from the same conduct for which the criminal prosecution was based.
In order to give readers a better understanding of a “no contest” plea in California, let's take more detailed look below.
How California Criminal Cases Are Resolved
A California criminal case, once filed, will resolve either by a negotiated plea between the defendant and the prosecution. This can be done by a jury trial, or in rare cases with the voluntary dismissal of the charges by the prosecutor.
The dismissal of charges could also occur by the judge ruling on either a statutory motion to dismiss, such as under Penal Code § 995, or a non-statutory motion to dismiss such as for outrageous government misconduct or violation of the statute of limitations or by demurrer.
The majority of criminal cases “settle,” meaning the defendant and the prosecution reach a negotiated resolution which involves the defendant pleading guilty or no contest to one or more criminal offenses or violations.
A plea of guilty is a straightforward admission of criminal liability which is the opposite of a plea of not guilty.
No Contest Plea in Felony Cases
No contest pleas, or nolo contendere plea as they are more formally known, are not quite as straightforward.
California statutes provide for a plea of no contest in a criminal case. In all cases, the judge in a criminal case who accepts a no contest plea will treat the defendant as a guilty person and impose sentence just as if the defendant had entered a guilty plea.
Why, therefore, would the defendant choose to plead no contest rather than guilty? In a felony case, there is no meaningful distinction between a no contest plea and a guilty plea except for the words used.
The fact that the defendant pled no contest to a felony can be used against a defendant her in subsequent civil or administrative proceedings.
In felony cases, therefore, a no contest plea just like a guilty plea is an admission of criminal liability. This becomes important because the burden of proof in civil cases is lower than that in criminal cases.
By admitting criminal liability based on a certain set of facts, the defendant is implicitly admitting also that civil liability could be found based on the same facts.
Benefit of No Contest Plea in Misdemeanor Cases
However, in misdemeanor cases a no contest plea provides a potentially substantial benefit to the defendant.
California law provides that a no contest plea to a misdemeanor cannot be used as an admission of liability in a related civil case. When would this scenario arise?
Imagine the defendant is charged with hit and run driving under California Vehicle Code Section 20002, a misdemeanor. No one was injured in the automobile collision, but substantial property damage was incurred by the victim which has not yet been compensated.
The defendant knows that the victim intends to sue him for money damages in civil court separate and apart from the criminal case he is already charged in. The defendant makes a decision to resolve his criminal case by negotiated plea.
The prosecutor has offered an extremely lenient sentence and, even though the defendant feels he might be acquitted at trial, he does not want to take the risk, instead preferring the guarantee of a lenient outcome.
However, the defendant also knows that if he pleads guilty to the hit and run, there is every likelihood that this plea will be used against him by the victim and his civil attorneys who will likely secure a large money judgment against the defendant.
By pleading no contest instead, the defendant can still take advantage of the plea agreement in his criminal case while preserving his ability to litigate his liability fully in the upcoming civil court proceeding.
A no contest plea as opposed to a guilty plea is therefore a substantial benefit to the defendant.
The same rule that applies to misdemeanors also applies to infractions under California law, though the relatively minor nature of an infraction makes it less likely that the defendant would be worried about substantial civil liability arising out of the same facts.
People v. West Appellate Decision
A related, but distinct, concept to pleading no contest is pleading pursuant to People v. West.
This a California appellate decision which stands for the proposition that some defendants enter guilty or no contest pleas not because they believe they are factually guilty, but because after weighing the costs, benefits, and risks of a jury trial, including the financial costs, they have decided to resolve their case by negotiation rather than litigation.
This is an important distinction because a judge must find that there is a factual basis for the defendant's plea before accepting it.
Rather than telling the court that they are factually innocent, but nevertheless will plead guilty, the defendant can take advantage of California's laws in an appropriate case.
By pleading no contest and stipulating to the court that there is a factual basis for the no contest plea, but only pursuant to People v. West, thereby signaling to the court that whether or not the defendant is factually guilty, they believe that it is in their best interests to plead no contest.
Eisner Gorin LLP is a criminal defense law firm located at 1875 Century Park E #705, Los Angeles, CA 90067. Contact our office for a consultation at (310) 328-3776.