At an arraignment or at a plea and sentencing hearing, a defendant enters a plea. One of the plea options is obvious – the defendant can say “I’m guilty, your honor.” Once the judge
assures herself that the plea if knowing, intelligent and voluntary, the serious business of meting out a sentence takes place.
In some cases, an injury has occurred. When that happens, an admission of guilt has repercussions that extend beyond the criminal case. For example, take an automobile accident.
If someone is injured or dies as a result of your criminal negligence, your admission of guilt can have an impact on insurance coverage and it can greatly impact the manner in which the civil lawsuit is handled. Enter the nolo plea.
Nolo is short for nolo contendere – I do not wish to contend. In the United States, state law usually determines when a defendant may plead no contest in state criminal cases. A nolo contendere plea will result in the same effects as a plea of guilty. A conviction arising from a nolo contendere plea is subject to any and all penalties, fines, and forfeitures of a conviction from a guilty plea in the same case. A nolo plea is generally, but not always, used when
accidental injury has occurred.
In New Hampshire, a plea of nolo contendere is not a confession of guilt. The plea is literal – its true meaning is, “I do not wish to contend.” As such, it is not an admission of the truth of the charge.
In State v. Fagan, 64 N.H. 431 (N.H. 1887), the New Hampshire Supreme court had this to say about nolo pleas: “A man may be conscious of innocence, and at the same time be conscious that
circumstances exist which he may be unable to explain, which render a defence useless, and so whilst protesting his innocence he may properly decline to contend with the state.
The plea is allowed by way of compromise between the state and the defendant, and is for the purposes of the particular case only, and cannot be used to bind the defendant in other proceedings. Its legal effect is, that the non-contending defendant submits to the mercy and the judgment of the court; but that effect is limited to the particular case in which the plea is entered, and the defendant is not thereby estopped in any subsequent proceeding (like the present indictment) to say that he was not guilty of the alleged offence, to the charge of which he pleaded that he would not contend.”
There is one other plea to discuss. It is called the Alford plea. An Alford plea is a plea of guilt despite a claim of innocence. A defendant’s decision to enter an Alford plea is an acknowledgment of the strength of the State’s case – it’s just that it isn’t worth it to the defendant to continue to press his/her innocence. I’ve had two Alford pleas that I can recall.
One of these cases will illustrate the plea. A minister was charged with violating the law for writing a letter to a sitting judge about a case that was under consideration. The minister had been in the courtroom for the trial and had noted what the minister regarded as poor courtroom behavior by the judge. The minister wrote the
judge a letter. It was sent to the judge’s home. The letter basically derided the judge’s attitude in court. It suggested that the judge must have had an unhappy childhood. The minister was not inclined to take the time nor spend the money necessary to defend
against the charge, so he entered an Alford plea. The sentence was meager and the minister took his lump(s) and moved on.
An Alford plea is similar to talking out of both sides of your mouth.
The defendant pleads guilty but maintains his innocence – how great is that?