No Contest

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The English translation of a nolo contendere plea used in criminal cases. Generally the terms nolo contendere and no contest are used inter-changeably in the legal community. The operation of a no contest plea is similar to a plea of guilty. A defendant who enters a no contest plea concedes the charges alleged without disputing or admitting guilt and without offering a defense. No contest has a different meaning in the context of a will.

The modern no contest plea originated during the reign of Henry IV in England in the early 1400s. It was considered a prisoner's implied confession. In cases where a death sentence was not a possibility, a prisoner was allowed simply to ask the court for mercy rather than contest the issue of guilt or innocence. Today the no contest plea is defined by statute and is available in almost every state. Such a plea is considered a privilege and not an automatic right of a defendant. Consequently, a no contest plea is accepted only with the consent of the court, and a judge is vested with discretion to accept or reject the plea. A plea of no contest usually is not allowed in death penalty cases.

The court must address several procedural concerns before accepting a no contest plea. If it appears from the facts presented that the defendant did not commit the offense charged, the trial court will refuse a no contest plea. Generally, a defendant must also tender a no contest plea knowingly and voluntarily. A plea is not deemed knowing and voluntary unless the defendant has a full understanding of the charges alleged and the legal ramifications of pleading no contest. To ensure that the plea is freely tendered, the court will also inquire whether the defendant has received any threats or promises. The adherence to these standards varies among courts and jurisdictions. Some courts operate under the assumption that a no contest plea should be accepted in the absence of some reason to the contrary, whereas others require the defendant to strictly observe every legal requirement before they will accept the plea.

A plea of no contest is advantageous for defendants where the effects of a plea of guilty are too harsh. For example, a defendant might choose to enter a no contest plea to avoid the expense and publicity of a trial. Another procedural advantage of a no contest plea is that it cannot be used against the accused in any civil suit for the same act. For example, if a motorist pleads no contest to a criminal assault charge against a hitchhiker, the hitchhiker cannot introduce evidence of that plea in a related civil proceeding for assault to impeach the motorist's credibility.

One disadvantage of a no contest plea is that it carries the same legal effect as a conviction for sentencing purposes. Though a defendant may hope for leniency during sentencing for saving the court the time and costs of a trial or because of a bargain worked out with the prosecutors, the full range of penalties remain available to the court for the given crime. Thus, a defendant risks receiving the same punishment without the opportunity to offer a defense or a chance for an acquittal from a jury.

A second meaning of no contest relates to wills and the intentions of the testator. A no contest provision in a will provides that the gift or devise is given on the condition that no legal action is taken to challenge the will. If a legal challenge to the will is pursued, the no contest provision provides that the person bringing the action forfeits the gift or devise. The purpose of no contest clauses is to carry out the express wishes of the testator and to discourage litigation. Nonetheless, many courts refuse to enforce no contest clauses if the challenge is brought in good faith and on probable cause.