From the Latin for "I do not wish to contend," a plea of nolo contendere or "no contest" is a legal option available in many jurisdictions. A no contest plea is not a confession of guilt, only an agreement not to dispute the charges in court. A defendant may have any number of reasons to plead no contest, especially if a full public trial appears unwinnable or the defendant faces a civil suit based on the same charges. Such a plea may result in a less severe punishment, and because there is no admission of guilt, no confession enters evidence.
If a defendant enters a plea of "guilty," the judge will compel him or her to provide all of the details of the crime, a process known as allocution. The judge may also hold a private meeting called a colloquy to make sure the defendant understands all of the ramifications of a guilty plea. If a defendant decides to plead no contest, however, he or she would not have to provide such a detailed confession. If a defendant chooses not to enter a plea at all, the court will generally enter a "not guilty" plea by default and schedule a trial.
One reason a defendant in a criminal court case may decide to plead no contest is the potential for a costly civil lawsuit at a later date. By pleading nolo contendere to a relatively minor criminal charge, he or she could pay a fine, spend a minimal amount of time in jail, or perform community service. Only a few general details of the criminal trial proceedings could later be brought up in a civil trial. If a public figure assaults an intrusive tabloid reporter, for example, he or she could plead no contest to simple assault charges during the criminal hearing and receive a relatively minor sentence. If that same reporter decided to sue the public figure for damages in a civil lawsuit, the defendant's no contest plea could not be construed as an admission of guilt, and there would be no detailed allocution to enter as evidence.
Another consideration would be the expense and humiliation of a lengthy public trial. A plea of "not guilty" implies an assertion of innocence; the defendant maintains that he or she did not commit the act for which he or she has been charged. A "guilty" plea may help the defendant avoid public exposure of his or her criminal act during a trial, but it also commits the defendant to accept the will of the court during sentencing. Pleading "no contest" carries the same weight as a guilty plea, but the penalty phase is often more immediate and less harsh than a finding of guilt by a jury. A defendant may also plead no contest in order to spare others from the stresses of court appearances and potential testifying.
Quite often a defendant will plead no contest at the advice of his or her legal advisers. If a trial appears to be unwinnable based on the evidence, or the potential sentence would be exceedingly harsh, a defense attorney may suggest a plea of nolo contendere as a workable compromise.
Under certain conditions, a defendant may also enter what is known as an Alford plea. Unlike a plea of no contest, an Alford plea is a plea of guilt, but the defendant still asserts his or her claims of innocence. The defendant is still considered convicted, but the conditions of the plea can be challenged during the appeals process. A defendant who decides to plead no contest, on the other hand, does not necessarily assert his or her innocence or guilt, just acceptance of the court's disposition of the case.