Whether you plead guilty or no contest, your plea counts as a finding of guilty and a conviction on your record. But there are differences between the two that may prove important to you. There is also a third plea alternative – other than not guilty – which is used more widely than no contest that is available and may best fit your situation.
Pleading guilty means you are admitting that the facts underlying the crimes you have pleaded to are true. After you plead guilty, the judge will ask you questions to ensure that you are acting voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently. Someone will have to articulate the facts that support your charges – the prosecutor, the judge, your attorney or yourself. If you plead guilty, you have to admit that these facts are true. If you disagree with the facts and will not admit to them, the judge will not accept your guilty plea.
You cannot appeal a guilty plea, but you can challenge it in other ways after the fact. You can argue that you did not understand what you were getting into – that the judge did not question you thoroughly or that your attorney gave you misinformation. The first claim, regarding the judge, would be raised through a motion to withdraw your guilty plea. The second claim, attorney incompetence, would be raised through a habeas corpus petition, but only if you were exposed to jail time.
A plea of no contest means that you are not challenging your guilty, but you do not have to agree with the facts of the crime the state claims you committed. Pleas of no contest are relatively rare and are most often pursued in two circumstances. The firs is if you are charged with a crime that involves injuries to another, such as a car accident or assault. A guilty plea can be used against you in a civil suit for monetary damages. A no contest plea cannot be so used, which is why the court has to approve a plea of no contest.
Secondly, if the police search your home or car or your person and find drugs or an illegal weapon, you may agree that you will be convicted if the evidence is admitted, but you think the search was unconstitutional. Your attorney can file a motion to suppress the evidence and demand a hearing. If the attorney loses the hearing, you can file a plea of no contest contingent on the right to appeal the judge’s decision on the motion to suppress. If an appellate court denies your appeal, you are guilty. If it upholds your appeal, you are either not guilty or your case is a do-over, depending on what other evidence the prosecutor has.
There is a third plea alternative, called an Alford plea, which is based on the United States Supreme Court case of North Carolina versus Alford. Basically, you are saying that you disagree with some of the facts alleged, but you concede that the state has enough evidence to convict you and you want to plead out to avoid the risk of a greater punishment after a trial. Sometimes, people are uncomfortable with pleading guilty because they disagree with some of the evidence against them, but they are not contesting that they did wrong and that the state can convict them. An Alford plea is the perfect solution in this situation and is very common.