An Alford plea in Nevada is when a defendant in a criminal case does not admit guilt but concedes there is sufficient evidence to find him/her guilty at trial. In short, it is a guilty plea that allows the defendant to maintain his/her innocence.
Purpose of Alford pleas
Whenever a defendant in a Nevada criminal case enters a guilty plea, the judge asks them, "Are you pleading guilty because you are in fact guilty?" The defendant then must answer yes in order for the judge to accept the guilty plea.
In practice, many defendants in Nevada criminal cases freely admit to their guilt. But there are other defendants who fiercely maintain their innocence but realize that they would probably be convicted should their case go to trial. Alford pleas are for them.
By taking an Alford plea, defendants never have to admit they are guilty. Instead, all they are admitting is that the state's case is strong enough to convict them.
Defendants who enter Alford pleas would rather just enter a plea than put everyone through the trouble of a trial that will probably return a guilty verdict. And by entering an Alford plea, they would probably get a lesser Nevada sentence than if they were found guilty at trial.
Functionally, Alford pleas have the same end result as straight-out guilty pleas: The defendants give up their right to a trial, and the judge will likely convict the defendants and sentence them less harshly than if they were found guilty at trial.
But Alford pleas give defendants the peace of mind that though they may be adjudged guilty, they never had to tell the judge that they are guilty.
History and process of Alford pleas
Alford pleas get their name from the 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case North Carolina v. Alford (400 U.S. 25). The court held that entering a plea without admitting guilt is constitutional as long as the defendant is doing it for a legitimate reason, such as to get a lighter sentence than what he/she would likely get after trial.
When a defendant enters an Alford plea, the district judge is required to do the following:
- decide whether there is a factual basis for the plea;
- ensure that the defendant understands the elements of the crime(s) he/she is charged with; and
- seek to resolve the conflict between waiving the right to trial and claiming innocence by asking the defendant (not his/her counsel) about his/her motivations
Alford pleas versus pleas of nolo contendere
In Nevada, Alford pleas are the same as pleas of "nolo contendre." The Nevada Supreme Court said in State v. Gomes, 112 Nev. 1473, 930 P.2d 701 (1996), "We expressly hold that whenever a defendant maintains his or her innocence but pleads guilty pursuant to Alford, the plea constitutes one of nolo contendere.") Another expression for "nolo contendere" is "no contest."
Note that defendants who later try to withdraw their pleas always face an uphill battle, even if it was an Alford plea. Learn more about motions to withdraw pleas in Nevada (NRS 176.165).