The No Contest Plea In California: What It Means

In my practice as a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles defending my clients, I have encountered many people with the question, "What is the difference between a plea of guilty and a no contest plea?" Basically, a plea of "no contest" or commonly referred to also by the latin phrase Nolo Contendere functions much the same as a guilty plea, with these important distinctions. Since a plea of no contest does not admit guilt, it simply tells the court that the defendant does not wish to dispute the charges; it can be useful to a defendant that wishes to limit their potential civil liability from the alleged criminal incident. This can be important because often times a criminal matter can be resolved, with either a plea or a trial verdict, however the civil matter can still be filed and litigated, notwithstanding the resolution of the criminal case. In California, a no contest plea is found in section 1016 of the California Penal Code found below; 1016. There are six kinds of pleas to an indictment or an information, or to a complaint charging a misdemeanor or infraction: 1. Guilty. 2. Not guilty. 3. Nolo contendere, subject to the approval of the court. The court shall ascertain whether the defendant completely understands that a plea of nolo contendere shall be considered the same as a plea of guilty and that, upon a plea of nolo contendere, the court shall find the defendant guilty. The legal effect of such a plea, to a crime punishable as a felony, shall be the same as that of a plea of guilty for all purposes. In cases other than those punishable as felonies, the plea and any admissions required by the court during any inquiry it makes as to the voluntariness of, and factual basis for, the plea may not be used against the defendant as an admission in any civil suit based upon or growing out of the act upon which the criminal prosecution is based. 4. A former judgment of conviction or acquittal of the offense charged. 5. Once in jeopardy. 6. Not guilty by reason of insanity. A defendant who does not plead guilty may enter one or more of the other pleas. A defendant who does not plead not guilty by reason of insanity shall be conclusively presumed to have been sane at the time of the commission of the offense charged; provided, that the court may for good cause shown allow a change of plea at any time before the commencement of the trial. A defendant who pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, without also pleading not guilty, thereby admits the commission of the offense charged. It is important to point out that subdivision three, above, makes reference to the fact that in a criminal matter in California, a no contest plea cannot be used in a civil case brought against someone in a misdemeanor matter. However, due to the above, in felony cases, a no contest plea still creates the potential of being used against the defendant in a subsequent civil action for the same incident. This is a crucial distinction in California Law and it can have huge implications for the client! That's why it's important to hire a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney that know this distinction and seeks, if possible, to have the matter reduced to a misdemeanor pursuant to section 17(b) of the California Penal Code. This cannot always be accomplished, because many factors go into the court reducing the offense under 17(b), but it is worth looking into to protect the criminal defense attorney's client against potential civil liability. Furthermore, pursuant to People v. Padfield (1982) 136 CA3d 218, a no contest plea in California is identical to a guilty plea as far as any appellate rights are concerned. The Padfield case also illustrates that a no contest plea in California makes the defendant give up their evidentiary rights to contest the truth of the alleged incident that they are being charged with. In California, before a plea of no contest is entered, the court must give its permission to this plea, because a plea of no contest is not allowable in criminal court unless the court approves it. While the defendant will be advised of their constitutional rights that they are waiving and giving up by entering their plea, much like a plea to the court whereby the prosecutor is not a party to the plea, a no contest plea does not require the consent of the prosecutor as long as the defendant is pleading to all of the charged counts, because a plea to the court essentially takes the prosecutor out of the plea.

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