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In Nevada criminal cases, an Alford plea is when you deny you are guilty while admitting sufficient evidence exists to find you guilty. This way you get to maintain your innocence and still accept a plea deal sentence that will likely be laxer than if you were convicted at trial.1
What is the purpose of Alford pleas?
Functionally, Alford pleas have the same end result as straight-out guilty pleas in Nevada: You give up your right to a trial, and the judge will likely convict you and sentence you less harshly than if you were found guilty at trial.
Though by taking an Alford plea, you never have to admit you are guilty. Instead, all you are admitting is that the state’s case is strong enough to convict you.
If you were to enter a straight-out guilty plea, the judge would ask you, “Are you pleading guilty because you are in fact guilty?” Then you must answer yes in order for the judge to accept the guilty plea. By taking an Alford plea instead, you have the peace of mind of maintaining your innocence.
How did Alford pleas get their name?
Alford pleas get their name from the 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case North Carolina v. Alford. The court held that entering a plea without admitting guilt is constitutional as long as you are doing it for a legitimate reason, such as to get a lighter sentence than what you would likely get after trial.2
What is the process for entering an Alford plea in Nevada?
When you enter an Alford plea in Nevada, the judge is required to do the following three things:
decide whether there is a factual basis for the plea;
ensure that you understand the elements of the crime(s) you are charged with; and
seek to resolve the conflict between waiving your right to trial and claiming innocence by asking you (and not your counsel) about your motivations.3
Are Alford pleas different from pleas of nolo contendere?
“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.“4
Another expression for “nolo contendere” is “no contest.”
Can I withdraw Alford pleas?
It is nearly impossible to withdraw any type of guilty plea in Nevada, whether it is an Alford plea or not. Before the judge accepts your plea, they ask you several questions making sure you understand that pleas cannot be taken back.
Can Alford pleas be used as evidence in civil cases?
No. Since you are not admitting guilt with an Alford plea, the plea cannot be used as evidence in related civil cases.5
Example: Jen pleads no contest to vehicular manslaughter following a fatal car accident. The victim’s family then sues her for wrongful death. During this civil case, the “no contest” plea cannot come in as evidence because she never admitted guilt.
Therefore in an effort to avoid potential civil liability, it is usually preferable for defendants in criminal cases to take Alford pleas rather than guilty pleas. Though from our legal team’s experience fighting charges here at Las Vegas Defense Group, we found that some prosecutors offer better plea deals with laxer sentences if defendants plead guilty and “own the blame” as opposed to pleading no contest.
An Alford plea is a way to have your cake and eat it, too: You never have to admit guilt while reaping the benefits of accepting a plea bargain.
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.