Pleading no contest, or nolo contendere in Latin, to a criminal charge is similar to entering a guilty plea. But, legally speaking, there are some substantial differences which defendants must keep in mind.
No contest simply means you’re conceding the charge without admitting guilt and without presenting a defense. So if you plead no contest to a criminal charge, you will have a conviction on your record, just as though you had pleaded guilty or been convicted after a trial.
However, the biggest advantage of a no-contest plea compared to a guilty plea is that a no-contest plea could not be offered as evidence in a civil case. However, this only applies to misdemeanor or infraction convictions, not felony cases. So if you plead no contest, that plea cannot be used to prove your guilt in a civil lawsuit by the victim later on.
For example, let’s say you are involved in a fight with another person one night at a sports bar. In the course of the fight, you punch the other party in the nose and break it. While you end up getting charged with assault, the other individual hires a personal injury attorney, who files a civil lawsuit on their behalf. When you plead no contest instead of pleading guilty, the victim's attorney cannot use your plea to prove you were financially responsible for their client’s injury.
However, you cannot enter a no-contest plea as a matter of right. Rather, a judge often has to allow a defendant to plead no contest. He or she must also ensure a defendant is knowingly and voluntarily pleading no contest, fully understanding the charges and legal consequences of such a plea.
Still, pleading no contest doesn’t mean that you will be necessarily off the hook. As we mentioned above, a no contest plea has the same effect as a guilty plea or a conviction when it comes to sentencing. So just because you avoid the hassle of a trial when pleading no contest, you shouldn’t expect the judge to be lenient.