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What is the Difference Between a “Guilty Plea” and a “No Contest Plea” in a Drunk Driving Case?

Guilty versus No Contest

In DUI cases there is a common perception that it is better to have a plea of “no contest” on your record than a finding of guilt or a plea of guilty. Depending on which state you received your DUI charge, pleading no contest may be just as bad as pleading guilty.

What are the differences between the two types of pleas?

The answer to this questions depends on the laws of the individual states. However, as a general proposition, the main difference is in the name.

A “no contest” or “nolo contendre” plea simply sounds better. For many people accused of drunk driving, the word “guilt” causes an adverse gut reaction. The term “no contest” just sounds better.

However, for all intents and purposes, in most states they are the same. A no contest plea says that although you don’t admit that you are guilty, you agree that the evidence looks pretty bad and that a reasonable finder of fact would find you guilty of DUI if given a chance.

If they are the same, why doesn’t everybody plead “no contest?”

Many DUI prosecutors will not allow a plea of “no contest” if there is a plea bargain on the table. In other words, if you want to take advantage of a deal that reduces or dismisses some of the charges, you may be asked to accept it in exchange for a plea of “guilty.”

Good DUI defense lawyers know that since there is limited difference in practical terms, a plea of guilty sometimes looks better to a judge who will then have to pass sentence.

One thing that judges look for as a mitigating factor (a reason to go easier on you at sentencing) is that you have accepted responsibility for your decision. If you are only willing to plead no contest, some judges view this as your attempt to dodge responsibility in court. They may take it out on you at sentencing.

If I plead “no contest” do I have to say that I’ve been convicted on a job application?

It depends on how the question is worded, but typically if the question is “have you been convicted of a crime?” then you will have to answer yes because a no contest plea to DUI results in a conviction on your record in most states.

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