In Florida is there a difference between pleading “no contest” or pleading “guilty” to a criminal or traffic offense?”

no contest plea, pensacola, florida, Gulf BreezeMany of us have heard the term “no contest,” or in Latin “nolo contendere,” which means “I do not wish to contend,” on television or maybe during a trip to court here in Pensacola, but what does that mean and what is the difference between a plea of no contest and a plea of guilty in Florida?

Sometimes there is, effectively, no difference and sometimes there is a considerable difference.

If someone pleads guilty, they are admitting to the facts and legal consequences of those facts.  However, by entering a no contest plea, a person is not admitting their guilt but is admitting there are facts the prosecution can prove that would result in a conviction.  Specifically, by entering a plea of no contest a person is neither denying their guilt or admitting it. Rather, they are admitting that it is in their best interest to enter the plea.  The sentencing consequences can be, and usually are, the same.

The Benefit of A “No Contest Plea”

By entering a plea of “no contest” in Florida it prevents the plea from being used against the person in a subsequent civil or criminal proceeding.  It also permits a person to appeal adverse rulings against him or her by the Court, such as denying a “motion to suppress” or allowing certain evidence to be presented by the prosecution. However, like many other states, Florida law does allow in certain types of subsequent cases that a “no contest” plea be used against a person. See Fla. Stat. §772 (2015).

If a person pleads “guilty” they are admitting they committed the crime in question and that admission can be used in later court cases.

An Example of When a No Contest Plea is Beneficial

If a person is arrested for DUI involving personal injury, the injured party may sue the driver for compensation in civil court.

If the driver pleads guilty to the criminal DUI charge, the injured party’s attorney may introduce into evidence the fact that the driver admitted guilt in his or her DUI case in the civil suit because, by pleading guilty, the person is admitting to the facts and his or her own guilt. On the other hand, if the driver pleads no contest, there’s no admission of guilt and the injured party’s attorney cannot use that as an admission in the civil damages suit. If the driver had pled guilty, a civil jury or judge can be told he or she admitted to being DUI at the time of the crash. They can’t be told he pled no contest.

Does a Person Always Have the Option of Pleading No Contest in Florida?

Pleading “no contest” or being required to plead guilty is within the discretion of the criminal judge the person appears in front of.  Some judges won’t give their consent to allow a person to plea “no contest” yet most do. See Fla. R. Crim. P. 3. 170.  Also, if you enter a plea agreement with the prosecutor, the prosecutor may require you to plead guilty under the terms of the plea agreement. See our previous blog post about plea agreements here.

However, a person should note that pleading no contest does not prevent a conviction from going on your criminal record. Also, in federal court the allowance of a “no contest” plea can only be entered with the consent of the federal court judge as well. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 11.  In my experience in our federal court in Pensacola, the United States District Court, Northern District of Florida, Judges will almost never allow “no contest” pleas.

If you are facing a federal or state criminal charge in Pensacola, Escambia County, Gulf Breeze, Navarre, Fort Walton Beach, Destin, or anywhere in Northwest Florida, please give us a call at The Jenkins Law Firm.  We’d be happy to assist you and if we cannot, we’ll be happy to get you referred to someone who can.