The Latin phrase nolo contendere, sometimes misspelled as nolo contendre, means “I do not contest,” and can be entered as a plea when someone answers criminal charges. This plea is not an admission of guilt, but does allow the court to impose a sentence. The other option is a guilty plea, accepting responsibility for the charges, or a plea of not guilty, indicating an intent to fight the charges in court. Usually, the legal system limits the circumstances when people can enter a nolo contendre plea. If this is an option, people can discuss it with their attorneys.
When this plea is entered, people accept the consequences of a crime, but do not make an admission of guilt. A nolo contendre plea can result in fines, jail time, and other punishments. In the eyes of the legal system, the accused has not admitted guilt or responsibility. In terms of punishment, entering this plea has the same effect as pleading guilty.
The advantage to pleading nolo contendre is avoiding civil liability in a suit. If someone has not admitted wrongdoing, that person cannot be taken to civil court on the grounds of the plea in the criminal case. This makes it harder to recover damages from someone accused of a crime, providing legal protection from a large settlement. Victims may be opposed to a nolo contendre plea, as it limits their opportunities to pursue the matter in civil court if they wish to recover damages.
Usually, the decision to enter a nolo contendre is made as part of the plea bargaining phase of a case. The prosecution and defense meet with each other to discuss the possibility of allowing the accused to enter a plea before the trial starts, receiving a sentence without going to trial. This cuts down on time in court. A plea bargain may allow someone to negotiate for a less serious conviction or sentence, as in the case of a situation where the prosecution accepts a nolo contendre plea.
Plea bargains are not offered in all cases. The defense can approach the prosecution to request a negotiation and receive a negative response. Prosecutors may be reluctant to allow people to plea down if they feel they can get a strong conviction by taking the case to court. There may be political concerns as well. A prosecutor does not want the public, including criminals, to get the impression that she is weak on certain kinds of crime or will be willing to cut a deal in all cases.