Entering a Plea—Not Guilty, Guilty, or No Contest (Nolo Contendre)
Generally speaking, a defendant can enter of three potential pleas 1:
- Not guilty;
- No Contest (nolo contendre); and
The first opportunity a defendant has to speak in court will be at the arraignment where one of these three pleas will be entered. It is vitally important to speak with an attorney prior to entering any plea (but especially important before pleading "guilty" or "no contest"). If you are unable to speak to an attorney prior to arraignment, you should tell the judge you have not had time to consult with an attorney. The court will ask if you have the money to hire an attorney. If you do, the court can give you more time to talk to an attorney before you are arraigned. If not, the court may ask you some questions about your job, family support, etc. If the court decides you cannot afford an attorney, the court will have you talk to a public defender (who is a "real" attorney). The court may have you talk to the public defender right then and there or may continue your case for you to have time to talk to your attorney.
If the defendant knows he did the crime, is being offered a good deal by the prosecution, and has seen all the evidence against him (or is worried that by waiting the prosecution will find worse evidence against him), a guilty plea may be in the defendant's best interest. Often, your attorney will be able to talk to the judge before hand and have a good idea as to what the sentence will be if a guilty plea is entered. Armed with that knowledge and the risk that the prosecution could find more incriminating evidence or that the jury would not be sympathetic to the defense, a guilty plea (or "no contest" below) may be the best option. If a defendant pleads guilty, his plea can be used against him as an admission that he did the acts he was charged with. That admission can be used against him other court proceedings such as civil lawsuits for money damages.
No Contest (nolo contendre)
Very similar to a guilty plea is a plea of no contest. No contest simply means the defendant is not admitting guilt but rather declining to defend himself. Defendants choose not to defend themselves and enter a no contest plea for varying reasons. Sometimes it is because they don't want the time and expense of trial; more often, it is because they are worried about a civil lawsuit following the criminal trial. Unlike a guilty plea, a no contest plea cannot be used against the defendant at a civil trial because the plea is not an admission of guilt. But, just like a guilty plea, the sentence will be the same and the effect on the defendant's criminal record will be the same.
The final option is a "not guilty" plea. A not guilty plea should be entered when the defendant is adamant he did not commit the crime, when the crime is serious (a felony), or when the defendant wants to go to trial no matter what the evidence is. In any felony case, a not guilty plea should be entered at arraignment. The not guilty plea starts the discovery process and allows the defense to get discovery from the prosecution. Once the discovery is obtained, reviewed, and discussed with the defendant, a change of plea can be entered if a trial is not in the defendant's best interest.
1 If the defendant has already been charged for this same set of events, the defendant can enter a plea of "once in jeopardy." This plea is relatively rare and you and your attorney can discuss this option if you feel you have already been punished (or acquitted) for these acts.