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When someone is charged with a crime, he can respond in one of three ways: he can plead not guilty, guilty, or nolo contendere, which means literally "no contest." Pleading not guilty is fairly self-explanatory — it is, in effect, the person saying, "I didn't do it, and I want my day in court." A guilty plea requires an admission that the defendant committed the crime. In a no contest plea, however, he does not admit guilt, but does accept punishment.
When someone pleads guilty, he or she admits committing the crime and accepts punishment for it. A guilty plea is not automatically accepted by the court, however. The judge must be convinced that the person is actually guilty, as opposed to, for example, covering for a loved one. The prosecution must present some of the evidence that it would have planned on using in court to prove elements of its case.
The person offering the guilty plea normally must allocute, or describe in his or her own words, the crime that was committed. The judge must also engage the defendant in a colloquy, or a discussion to make sure that the person understands what the plea means, especially with regard to giving up the right to a jury trial. A person cannot plead guilty — and a court cannot accept a guilty plea — if the defendant actively claims innocence.
A no contest plea in effect says, "I'm not saying I committed the crime, but I recognize that I may be convicted anyway, so I'll take the punishment." A person entering a no contest plea can still claim innocence, or at least refrain from claiming guilt. The defendant pleading no contest may feel that the costs of a trial — financial, emotional or time-related — are greater than the costs of the plea. Especially if the punishment is relatively minor, like a fine or community service, a defendant may enter a no contest plea rather than chancing conviction, and possibly a harsher penalty, at a trial.
One advantage of a no contest plea is that it cannot be used against a defendant in a later civil trial. For example, say someone is charged with reckless driving and causes an accident involving bodily harm. The penalties may not be too stiff, but the injured person could possibly file a civil suit claiming heavy monetary damages. If the defendant pleads guilty in the criminal case, the injured person could use that plea in the civil suit as evidence that the driver has already admitted responsibility for the accident. With a no contest plea, however, the defendant can maintain his or her innocence, while still avoiding the time and expense of a criminal trial.
The differences between a guilty plea and a no contest plea can be subtle. Both pleas have their purposes, and can work differently for individuals facing criminal and civil charges.
Most people in American jails plead guilty. Now, whether this is because they were guilty or because they just wanted a reduced sentence is unclear.