No Contest Pleas, Conditional Pleas, and Alford Pleas in Criminal Cases
More often than not, a defendant who accepts a plea bargain will plead guilty to a charge. However, there are certain other types of pleas in the criminal justice system that offer advantages in some situations. Perhaps the most common alternative is a no contest (nolo contendere) plea. This can help a defendant avoid collateral consequences in a civil lawsuit that arises from the same events as the criminal case. If they are charged after a car accident or an assault, for example, the victim of the accident or assault might bring a claim for personal injury damages. The victim could use a guilty plea as evidence of the defendant’s liability for the accident, but they could not use a no contest plea in the same way. There are some exceptions in some states, especially when the defendant’s crime was a felony.
Otherwise, a no contest plea functions similarly to a guilty plea. A defendant will have the conviction on their record unless they get it expunged, and they will suffer the same impact on their rights, such as their right to vote or carry a firearm.
A conditional plea is a type of guilty plea or no contest plea. It allows the defendant to appeal a certain issue in the case to a higher court, which will determine whether the lower court made a mistake. The defendant will be able to withdraw the guilty or no contest plea if the appeals court agrees that the trial judge was wrong. You can make a conditional plea only with the agreement of the prosecution and the judge, and you should try to get that agreement in writing. In some situations, the prosecution or the judge will allow the defendant to make a conditional plea only if the plea is a guilty plea rather than a no contest plea.
State Law Varies
State law dictates whether conditional pleas are available, under which circumstances, and whether they are necessary to preserve issues for appeal.
Some states do not allow for conditional pleas or allow for them only in certain situations. The defendant thus may need to plead not guilty if they want to preserve the issue for appeal.
In still other states, a defendant may not need to make a conditional plea to preserve an issue. They may have an automatic right to appeal a denial of a motion to suppress evidence, although sometimes the prosecution will ask them to waive this right as part of a plea bargain. The right to appeal based on ineffective assistance of counsel also may be automatic, regardless of whether the plea was conditional.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in North Carolina v. Alford allows a defendant to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence.
A defendant may be confident in their innocence but feel reluctant to take the risk of going to trial. They may be able to make an Alford plea, depending on the state where they live. (The name is based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the Court ruled that this type of plea is constitutional.) An Alford plea allows a defendant to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence. Some states do not allow Alford pleas and require a defendant to plead not guilty if they are asserting that they are innocent. Other states allow Alford pleas in the context of no contest pleas but not guilty pleas.