When a defendant is charged with a criminal offense, he or she must generally choose to plead either guilty or not guilty to the offense. However, in some instances, a defendant may be able to plead “no contest” to the charge.
If the defendant chooses to plead “not guilty,” the court will set the case for trial, and the prosecution will have the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If, however, the defendant chooses to plead “guilty” no further court proceedings are necessary unless they are part of a plea deal offered by the prosecution. In most cases where a defendant chooses to plead “guilty,” it is because of a plea bargain between the defendant and the prosecution. For example, the prosecution may offer to drop the criminal charge to a lesser charge in exchange for the defendant pleading guilty to the charge. When the defendant pleads guilty to a specific charge, it is then within the discretion of the court to sentence the defendant according to the sentencing guidelines set out by the legislature for the specific charge that the defendant plead guilty to.
A plea of “no contest” has a similar effect as a guilty plea in a criminal case in that the court then has the discretion to sentence the defendant according to the sentencing guidelines for that specific charge. The major difference between a plea of “guilty” and a plea of “no contest” is that, in the latter, the defendant is not actually admitting any guilt, but is instead indicating that he or she is not challenging the charges. While this distinction may seem trivial, it can become a very important distinction if a civil suit is later brought against the defendant concerning the same events that led to the criminal charges. While generally a plaintiff may use a defendant’s guilty plea as an admission of guilt in a civil case, a plaintiff may not use a defendant’s plea of no contest as an admission of guilt in the same context.
For example, say Defendant rear-ends Plaintiff and is then charged with Careless Driving. In the criminal case, Defendant may choose to plead guilty to the charge or may enter a plea of no contest. Following the criminal case, Plaintiff may sue Defendant to recover any damages Plaintiff suffered as a result of the car accident. If Defendant pled guilty to the charge in the criminal case, Plaintiff can use Defendant’s plea as an admission of guilt in the civil case. However, if Defendant pled no contest to the charge in the criminal case, Plaintiff cannot use this plea as an admission of guilt and must prove Defendant was at fault for the accident.
Because of this distinction between a guilty plea and a no contest plea, it may seem like pleading no contest should be the norm, but it is not. This is because, before a court will enter a no contest plea, the court must first approve the no contest plea. Under Utah law, a no contest plea will only be approved “after due consideration of the views of the parties and the interest of the public in the effective administration of justice.” Because of this requirement, courts do not have to accept a no contest plea, whereas a plea of guilty does not carry with it the requirement of approval by the court.
It is important to always consult with an attorney about what option may be best in any given situation prior to entering any sort of plea before the court.