What it Means to Plead Nolo Contendere in Georgia

stopping the gavel

If you are facing traffic or criminal charges in Georgia, you may be nervous about the effect of pleading guilty. Sometimes, the right answer may be entering a nolo contendere plea instead. Find out what this no-contest plea is, and when it may help you resolve your case and avoid admitting guilt.

Nolo Contendere Plea Defined

Nolo Contendere is one of those old Latin legal terms that is still used in Georgia courts today. It translates as “I do not wish to contend” or “no contest.” As Georgia courts have explained, “a plea of nolo contendere is defined as an assertion by the defendant that the defendant does not desire to contest the truth of the charges . . . . Thus, it is not a plea of not guilty, nor is it a plea of guilty. Rather, it lies approximately midway between the two extremes.” Basically, entering a nolo contendere plea to criminal charges means that you accept the consequences of the charges without admitting guilt to the crime.

Every state has some form of “no contest” plea, but they don’t always have the same benefits and consequences. In Georgia, a nolo contendere plea (sometimes just called “nolo”) can be an effective way to resolve misdemeanor traffic offenses without all the consequences of a guilty plea. Georgia residents age 21 and up are allowed to plead nolo contendere once every 5 years. This can help them protect their license and their criminal and driving histories. To better understand what does or does not change in a no contest plea, let’s use a common example:

Michael accidentally ran a red light and hit Terry’s car. When the police responded to the accident, they wrote Michael a ticket for disobeying a traffic-control device, a 3-point traffic misdemeanor. Terry suffered whiplash because of the crash, and hired a personal injury attorney to sue Michael for his injuries.

Pleading Nolo Contendere to Traffic Charges

When Michael goes to court to respond to his traffic misdemeanor charges, his criminal defense attorney may suggest that Michael enter a nolo contendere plea, rather than admitting guilt. There are two main reasons to do this:

Avoiding Points on Your License

When charged as a misdemeanor, a conviction for failure to obey traffic-control devices usually involves a fine and the issuing of 3 points on a driver’s license through the Georgia Department of Driver Services. (A person’s license can be suspended if he or she receives 15 points within 24 months, or for a serious driving violation.) By entering a nolo contendere plea, Michael can pay the fine and close the criminal case without getting the points assigned. However, the violation will still be added to his individual driving record.

Avoid Admitting Guilt

Terry’s personal injury lawsuit also affects Michael’s decision whether to enter a guilty plea or a nolo contendere plea in his criminal case. If Michael pleads guilty to running the red light, he admits to violating a traffic law. Terry can use that admission to help prove that Michael should pay for his injuries and damages.

With a nolo contendere plea, Michael agrees to face the consequences, but never admits guilt. That means his no-contest plea can’t come back to haunt him in the civil trial. Terry will have to use other evidence to prove that Michael was at fault for the crash.

Other Reasons to Enter No Contest Pleas

Not every no-contest plea happens in a traffic case. A nolo plea may be asserted for any traffic, misdemeanor, or non-capital felony charge. There are some limited cases when nolo contendere may be the best choice to resolve other misdemeanors or even felony charges. For example, if an assault charge is connected to a civil lawsuit for battery, the same rules apply as for Michael’s traffic case.

In some other cases, a defendant is not able to plead guilty to criminal charges because he or she has no memory of what happened. For example, if a drunk driver does not remember how he got from the party he was attending to the local jail, he won’t be able to establish a factual basis for the operating while intoxicated charges. Since that is necessary for any guilty plea, the defendant may have to plead nolo contendere instead.

Limits to the Benefits of Nolo Contendere Pleas

Nolo Contendere pleas may be useful for people like Michael who face specific criminal and civil situations, but in many other cases no contest pleas are not the best option:

  • They do not prevent points for anyone under age 18, or under age 21 for serious traffic offenses.
  • They do not prevent a license suspension connected to the charge itself (i.e. DUI).
  • A judge has to agree to let Michael, or any criminal defendant, enter a nolo contendere plea. If the judge doesn’t consent to the plea, Michael will have to choose between pleading guilty or going to trial.
  • For traffic violations, you can only enter one nolo contendere plea every five years in Georgia. If you have used this option too recently, your plea will be treated like a guilty plea, with all the consequences that come with that.
  • Nolo contendere pleas don’t reduce the penalty for the charges.
  • Depending on the charges, there may be alternatives or diversion programs that could avoid conviction entirely.

With so much on the line, it is important that you talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney to determine if trial or a plea, including seeking to enter a nolo contendere plea is the best option. Be sure to explain your whole situation, including any civil lawsuits you may be facing and any past no contest pleas you may have entered, so you can get the best advice on how to protect your rights and get your case resolved quickly.

Lance McCoy of The McCoy Law Firm, LLC, is a criminal and DUI defense attorney with 25 years of experience. From his family-owned law firm in Cartersville, Georgia, he represents defendants facing misdemeanor and felony charges throughout northwest Georgia. If you have a court date scheduled, please contact Criminal & DUI Law of Georgia so we can begin working on your case right away.