What’s the Difference Between Guilty and No Contest?

In the United States, there are three pleas the criminal defendant can make in the court of law, guilty, not guilty and no contest. Everyone understands that not guilty means the defendant is not admitting to committing the crime. However, many people get confused when it comes to the difference between no contest and guilty, as both pleas result in punishment for the defendant. In truth, there are several differences between the two that need to be understood. This will help you fully comprehend the legal consequences of the chosen plea.

In this article, we look at the difference between guilty and no contest pleas in more detail. With this understanding, you should then be able to decide whether it is better to plead guilty or no contest in your case for the best outcome.

What Does it Mean to Plead Guilty?

In the American legal system, pleading guilty means the defendant is admitting they committed the criminal offense they are in court for. They take full responsibility for the offense and accept the associated punishments. For a guilty plea to be official and be in the court record, anyone pleading guilty must do so under oath. The judge will then ask a series of other questions to ensure that the defendant is aware of the ramifications of their plea and how pleading guilty will remove some of their constitutional rights.

After the defendant has pleaded guilty, the case is resolved and thus closed without needing to go to trial. Sentencing may be given to the defendant at this time, or the meeting may be adjourned and a separate sentencing hearing scheduled. Interestingly, it is common for innocent people to plead guilty in court to enter a plea bargain. If the outcome of a trial is not looking promising, pleading guilty could result in a lesser punishment than if the defendant was proven to be guilty in a trial.

What Does it Mean to Plead No Contest?

When a defendant pleads no contest, also known as nolo contendere, they are accepting the punishment for the crime without admitting guilt. In other words, they are not saying they committed the crime. This plea also needs to be made under oath. The judge will ask several questions to check if the defendant fully understands the consequences of their plea. After the defendant has made their plea, the case will be closed and the judge will decide on an appropriate punishment for the defendant based on the nature of the offense that has been committed.

No Contest vs. Guilty Plea

Now that we know a little more about no contest and guilty pleas, we can start to compare the two. We will start with the similarities, as these are a little easier to understand. When a defendant pleads either guilty or no contest, the case is closed without going through the lengthy process of going to trial. The accused will also receive punishment for the offense as part of the legal consequences, and the defendant will receive a conviction for the crime regardless of the plea they make.

However, despite these similarities, there are differences between the two:

·        Admission of Guilt: The main difference between no contest and guilty pleas lie in the admission of guilt. Whereas those that plead guilty take full responsibility for their actions, a defendant that enters a no-contest plea takes the punishment without admitting they are responsible for the offense.

·        Effect on Civil Charges: Many criminal cases lead to disputes between individuals or organizations which fall under the category of civil law, thus opening both criminal and civil lawsuits. When the defendant pleads guilty in a criminal case, this can be used as supporting evidence for any civil claims filed against them. On the other hand, as a no-contest plea does not admit guilt, it cannot be used as evidence in a civil case. Note that in most jurisdictions this only applies to misdemeanor cases. No contest pleas for a felony offense typically have the same effect as a guilty plea and can be used as evidence.

·        Restrictions by State: All states allow for a defendant to plead guilty with no restrictions. However, the judge can choose to not accept a no-contest plea, such as if the defendant is denying their guilt to the media. This is known as an Alford plea and is not permitted in the states of Indiana, Michigan, and New Jersey. Moreover, some states still use the death penalty. In general, a no-contest plea is not accepted in a death penalty case.

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Should I Plead Guilty or No Contest?

Is it better to plead guilty or no contest? Well, this largely depends on the specifics of the case. Where given the option to plead no contest, this is generally beneficial for misdemeanor cases. The defendant will still be sentenced for the crime and receive punishment. However, if the defendant pleaded no contest, this case cannot be used against them as evidence in civil cases. Instead, the plaintiff will have to prove the defendant’s involvement by providing other evidence. As such, this could reduce their overall sentencing by reducing the chance they will be charged for civil crimes.

On the other hand, guilty and no contest pleas for felony offenses are seen as equivalent and can be entered as evidence in civil proceedings. Therefore, it is generally better for the defendant to enter a guilty plea in criminal cases involving a felony offense so the defendant can enter a plea bargain. In a plea bargain, the prosecutor will offer lesser sentencing and reduced penalties for admitting guilt,  resulting in a lesser punishment for the defendant.


Pleading guilty and no contest both have immediate action. The criminal case will not go to trial, and the defendant will receive punishment for the crime. However, a no-contest plea does not admit guilt and thus has different repercussions in future lawsuits and civil cases. Which plea is best to take depends on the nature of the crime and whether a plea bargain is on the table. If you are thinking of making a plea of any kind, speak to a criminal defense attorney first to ensure you choose the route with the best possible outcome.  

Article by Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson is a legal writer at Lawrina. Megan writes about different law practice areas, legal innovations, and shares her knowledge about her legal practice. As a graduate of the American University's Washington College of Law she is an expert of law in Lawrina's team and has a slight editing touch to all content that is published on the website.

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