Pleading “no contest” to a DUI charge is functionally the same as a guilty plea. The court will find you guilty and you will be convicted of the charge. However, it does not admit wrongdoing. Instead, pleading no contest means that you are not going to fight the charges. It can keep a DUI conviction from being used as evidence against you in a civil lawsuit filed by the victims.
There are other benefits to pleading no contest as part of a plea bargain in a DUI case. They are:
- avoiding a stressful trial, and
- preventing potentially embarrassing events from being public information.
However, there are also numerous drawbacks to pleading no contest. They include:
- giving up your right to defend against the charge,
- accepting the fines, jail time, and license suspension that come with a conviction,
- having a blemish on your criminal background, and
- the collateral consequences of a conviction.
What is a “no contest” plea in a DUI case?
A plea of “no contest” tells the court that you will not fight the charge of driving under the influence (DUI). It tells the court that you are willing to be punished for DUI without contesting the charge at a trial.
No contest pleas are often referred to as a nolo contendere plea. Nolo contendere is Latin for “I do not want to contend.”
A no contest plea is different from pleading not guilty because you give up your right to defend yourself.
It is also different from pleading guilty because you are not admitting that you committed the crime.
Pleading no contest will move your case straight to a sentencing phase. This makes it very similar to a guilty plea. The court will sentence you as if you had been convicted or had pled guilty to the DUI. You can face:
- a fine,
- jail time or DUI probation, and
- a license suspension.
Pleading no contest still leads to a conviction. That conviction is entered on your criminal record. The blemish on your criminal background can cause:
- employment problems,
- ineligibility or the loss of a professional license or certification, and
- driving restrictions.
Why would I want to plead no contest?
There are a few reasons why you may want to plead no contest to a DUI:
- you are not confident that you would be acquitted in a trial,
- you want to avoid the conviction being used against you in a civil case, and
- you want to avoid the stress of a trial.
The most common reason to plead no contest to a DUI is out of concern for a subsequent civil lawsuit. DUI victims often sue the drunk driver who caused their injuries. These personal injury claims seek compensation from the drunk or drugged driver for his or her recklessness. Victims often wait for the criminal case to end before filing their lawsuit. This allows them to:
- use a jury's guilty verdict as proof that the driver was under the influence, or
- use the driver's guilty plea as evidence of responsibility.
In either case, the alleged victim's personal injury lawsuit is bolstered. By pleading no contest, you can deprive them of evidence that could be used against you in court. It forces the alleged victim to prove their case, on their own. It prevents them from using your criminal case against you, again.
However, this may not be the case if the DUI charge is a felony. In California, no contest pleas only shield infractions and misdemeanors from use in a later civil case. No contest pleas to felony offenses can still be used.1
Another common reason to plead no contest to a DUI is to keep certain facts from becoming public record. Nearly all court convictions and pleas are public records. Anyone can search for them and read the details of your case. When you plead no contest, you can stipulate to a set of facts that support the case against you. This allows you to stipulate to facts that do not include details you want to keep hidden.
Why would someone want to avoid pleading no contest?
Pleading no contest to a DUI means you will not defend against the charge. It subjects you to the penalties of a conviction. This makes it very similar to pleading guilty.
Refusing to admit guilt, though, can influence how a judge sentences you. Judges sometimes reduce the sentence for people who plead guilty. The judge may see admitting guilt as a sign of remorse. By pleading no contest, you are refusing to admit wrongdoing.
Additionally, if the DUI charge is a felony, then pleading no contest loses one of its most important benefits. The purported victim can still use the plea as evidence against you in a civil lawsuit.