Nolo contendere is a legal term that comes from the Latin phrase for "I do not wish to contend" and it is also referred to as a plea of no contest.
In criminal trials in certain United States jurisdictions, it is a plea where the defendant neither admits nor disputes a charge, serving as an alternative to a pleading of guilty or not guilty. A no-contest plea, while not technically a guilty plea, has the same immediate effect as a guilty plea and is often offered as a part of a plea bargain. In many jurisdictions a plea of nolo contendere is not a right and carries various restrictions on its use.
In the United States, State law determines whether, and under what circumstances, a defendant may plead no contest in state criminal cases. In federal court, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure only allow a nolo contendere plea to be entered with the court's consent; before accepting the plea, the court is required to "consider the parties' views and the public interest in the effective administration of justice."
A nolo contendere plea has the same immediate effects as a plea of guilty, but may have different residual effects or consequences in future actions. For instance, a conviction arising from a nolo contendere plea is subject to any and all penalties, fines, and forfeitures of a conviction from a guilty plea in the same case, and can be considered as an aggravating factor in future criminal actions. However, unlike a guilty plea, a defendant in a nolo contendere plea may not be required to allocute the charges. This means that a nolo contendere conviction typically may not be used to establish either negligence per se, malice, or whether the acts were committed at all in later civil proceedings related to the same set of facts as the criminal prosecution.
Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, and most state rules which parallel them, nolo contendere pleas may not be used to defeat the hearsay prohibition if offered as an "admission by [a] party-opponent". Assuming the appropriate gravity of the charge, and all other things being equal, a guilty plea to the same charge would cause the reverse effect: An opponent at trial could introduce the plea, over a hearsay objection, as evidence to establish a certain fact.
In Alaska, a criminal conviction based on a nolo contendere plea may be used against the defendant in future civil actions. The Alaska Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that a "conviction based on a no contest plea will collaterally estop the criminal defendant from denying any element in a subsequent civil action against him that was necessarily established by the conviction, as long as the prior conviction was for a serious criminal offense and the defendant in fact had the opportunity for a full and fair hearing".
In California, a nolo contendere plea is known as a West plea after a seminal case involving plea bargains, People v. West (1970) 3 Cal.3d 595. The state Board of Pharmacy considers a plea of nolo contendere to be deemed a conviction with regard to issuing licenses for pharmacies, pharmacists and drug wholesalers.
In Florida, the Supreme Court held in 2005 that no-contest convictions may be treated as prior convictions for the purposes of future sentencing.
In Texas, the right to appeal the results of a plea bargain taken from a plea of nolo contendere is highly restricted, as is the right to appeal from a plea of "guilty". Defendants who have entered a plea of nolo contendere may only appeal the judgment of the court if the appeal is based on written pretrial motions ruled upon by the court.
Virginia deviates from the federal evidentiary rule in that a nolo contendere plea entered in a criminal case is admissible in a related civil proceeding.
In the Commonwealth countries—such as England and Wales, Canada, and Australia—the plea of nolo contendere is not permitted. The defendant must enter a plea of "guilty" or "not guilty". If a defendant refuses to enter a plea, the court will record a plea of "not guilty".