No Contest vs. Guilty — What Is the Difference?

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Pleading no contest and pleading guilty are two different decisions that a criminal defendant can make. Pleading guilty means the defendant admits fault for the charged crime.

Pleading no contest, sometimes called nolo contendere, means the defendant agrees to accept a conviction for the charged crime but does not admit to being factually guilty.

In most cases, a no contest plea has the same effect as a guilty plea; however, a no contest plea can benefit you if the victim later files a civil lawsuit stemming from the criminal charges.

Our team knows that entering a plea is a difficult decision to make. We can explain the difference between guilty and no contest pleas so you know how each option affects your rights.

Contact an attorney at The Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, online, or call 619-204-2058 today to schedule an appointment to discuss your case.

Effect of a Guilty Plea in California

When someone pleads guilty, it means they are admitting to the court that they committed the offense charged. By pleading guilty, the defendant waives certain constitutional rights, such as their right to:

  • Counsel,
  • A jury trial,
  • Be free from self-incrimination, and
  • Confront and cross-examine their accuser.

A defendant enters their plea in court so their admission becomes part of the official record.

The judge typically asks several questions to ensure the defendant understands the waiver of their rights and is entering the plea “knowingly and intelligently.” Common questions include:

  • Whether you understand the rights you are waiving by pleading guilty,
  • The nature of the crime you are pleading guilty to,
  • Consequences of the guilty plea, and
  • An acknowledgment that you are admitting guilt for the crime.

The judge will not accept your guilty plea if they do not think you entered the plea agreement by your own choice.

Once the judge accepts a guilty plea, the case proceeds to a sentencing hearing where the judge approves the agreed-upon penalty.

Effect of a No Contest Plea in California

Entering a no contest plea is a way for the defendant to plead guilty without confessing to the crime. The process for a no contest plea is similar to that of a guilty plea.

A person who pleads no contest faces the same potential penalties as someone who pleads guilty. Before the judge accepts a no contest plea, they will make sure the defendant understands:

  • The consequences of their no contest plea,
  • What rights they are waiving by pleading no contest, and
  • That the no contest plea has the same effect as a guilty plea.

The judge will also ask the defendant if they are entering the plea knowingly and voluntarily. Not everyone can plead no contest.

The prosecutor can refuse to offer a no contest plea agreement and require you to plead guilty to accept the favorable terms of the agreement.

Why Would an Innocent Person Plead Guilty? 

The unfortunate reality is that countless people plead guilty even when they did not commit a crime. An innocent person might plead guilty to:

  • Avoid the uncertainty of going to trial,
  • Minimize the time they spend fighting the charges,
  • Avoid the possibility of jail time,
  • Prevent an unfair trial,
  • Obtain closure for their family, or
  • Avoid spending money for their defense.

Entering a guilty plea is something innocent people do more than anyone likes to admit. Anyone who decides to plead guilty or no contest to a criminal accusation should understand their rights before doing so.

What Is the Difference Between a No Contest vs Guilty Plea?

A primary difference between a guilty and no contest plea is that the latter allows the defendant to maintain their innocence in another action for the same conduct.

In other words, a no contest plea to a misdemeanor cannot be used against the defendant as evidence of criminality in a civil action arising out of the same incident.

This only applies to misdemeanor offenses. The plaintiff in a civil action can use a guilty plea to show the defendant’s guilt in a parallel civil lawsuit. 

For example, consider that the defendant causes a fatal car accident and pleads no contest to DUI charges.

The plaintiff cannot use this plea as proof of guilt in a civil lawsuit for wrongful death. If the defendant pleads guilty to DUI charges after causing the fatal accident, the plaintiff can use their guilty plea as proof of their intoxication.

Can I Decide Whether to Plead No Contest or Plead Guilty?

It is always the defendant’s decision whether to accept a plea agreement. However, the prosecutor does not always give the defendant the option of pleading no contest. Additionally, the judge must accept the no contest plea.

Withdrawing a No Contest Plea

A defendant can file a motion to withdraw a plea before their sentencing or within six months of receiving a probation sentence.

The judge will grant this motion if the defendant can show good cause. An example of good cause involves situations where the defendant:

  • Did not understand the circumstances of the plea agreement,
  • Was not represented by competent legal counsel when they entered the plea agreement, or
  • Did not enter the plea agreement freely and voluntarily.

If the court grants the motion, the criminal court process starts over from the arraignment phase.

Contact a Criminal Defense Lawyer to Discuss Whether a Guilty or No Contest Plea Is the Right Option for You

A guilty or no contest plea will result in a criminal conviction appearing on your permanent record.

An experienced criminal defense lawyer can explain the difference between pleading guilty and pleading no contest in a criminal trial. We can explain how a no contest plea may benefit you in a civil trial stemming from the same incident.

Our founding attorney, Kerry L. Armstrong, has represented thousands of clients facing criminal charges and helped them secure favorable plea agreements.

Our team does not back down from trying complex cases and strives to provide high-quality legal representation to every client.

Contact The Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, online, or call 619-204-2058 today to schedule an appointment.

Where You Can Find Our San Diego, CA Office

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Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.