The short answer is that there really isn’t much of a difference between the two or three phrases. NOLO and NO CONTEST are pretty much the same thing. GUILTY and NOLO pleas are a little different from
one another, but not much.

Both GUILTY and NOLO pleas result in criminal convictions. Both pleas show up as (and are treated as) GUILTY findings by courts, prosecutors, and people conducting criminal background checks for school or
employment opportunities.

Ok, so if there is hardly a difference between a GUILTY plea and a NOLO plea, why do people still sometimes plead NOLO?

The word NOLO comes from the full Latin phrase NOLO CONTENDERE. Since most people aren’t addressing Julius Caesar or Marcus Aurelius when they plead, they tend to simply say the abbreviated “NOLO”. People usually enter a NOLO plea when they are accepting responsibility for having committed a crime which can get them sued for money later on. Or at least that is how the story goes. It is hard to imagine that the fate of any lawsuit for personal injuries would entirely hinge on the defendant having pled “guilty” to a crime.

Nonetheless, a NOLO plea (instead of a GUILTY plea) is supposed to make it a little more challenging for someone to sue a defendant for criminal conduct after the criminal case is wrapped up. For example:

Big Truck Joe is driving to work. He is expecting that his usual parking spot will be available. But, to Big Truck Joe’s surprise, he sees that Corvette Jimmy has parked his Corvette in Big Truck Joe’s
parking spot.

Big Truck Joe gets angry. Big Truck Joe decides to ram his big truck into the back of Corvette Jimmy’s Corvette. Big Truck Joe says to himself, “I showed him! Wait until Corvette Jimmy sees what I did to his Corvette when he leaves work today at 5!”

As Big Truck Joe finishes this thought, he feels his stomach turn as he sees the Corvette door open. He watches Corvette Jimmy stumble out of the Corvette. Jimmy is bleeding from his head. Corvette Jimmy tries to stand up, but he passes out and falls to the ground.

Big Truck Joe is about to have himself some bad days ahead. Big Joe gets arrested. He is charged with Attempted Murder and Criminal Threatening! Eventually, Big Truck Joe’s case works through the courts. The prosecutor offers Big Truck Joe a plea deal. Big Truck Joe can avoid jail if he pleads to Reckless Conduct. The prosecutor will drop the Attempted Murder and Criminal Threatening charges. Big Truck Joe decides to plead guilty to Reckless Conduct for smashing up Corvette Jimmy’s car.

Big Truck Joe walks into court, expecting to say the word “GUILTY” to the charge of Reckless Conduct. But, before he does so, Big Truck Joe’s lawyer tells him, “You need to plead NOLO because I think Corvette Jimmy is going to sue you after this criminal case is over.”

Big Truck Joe’s lawyer explains that even though the criminal case against Big Truck Joe is over, Corvette Jimmy still has a bunch of civil/lawsuit options available to him.

After the criminal court hearing is over, Corvette Jimmy can get a copy of Big Truck Joe’s “GUILTY” plea conviction, walk it down to a law office, and sue Big Truck Joe for a ton of money.

Corvette Jimmy can sue Big Truck Joe for stress, anxiety, long term medical bills, lost wages, infliction of emotional distress, civil assault, and a whole bunch of other civil offenses (called “intentional torts” for the legal gurus).

If Big Truck Joe pleads NOLO, however, Corvette Jimmy cannot necessarily say that Big Truck Joe admitted 100% fault or took 100% responsibility for all of Jimmy’s injuries (or “damages”).

While pleading NOLO may not save Big Truck Joe from having to dole out some money to Corvette Jimmy at the end of the day (given that his bad behavior is easily provable in this instance), it may make it a little harder for Corvette Jimmy to win his lawsuits against Big Truck Joe in civil court.

Many states don’t let civil plaintiffs present evidence of a defendant’s prior NOLO pleas.

For example in New Hampshire, the Rules of Evidence (Rule 410) prohibit a plaintiff (the victim who is suing the defendant) from even using a defendant’s NOLO plea. So, if Corvett Jimmy brought a lawsuit against Big Truck Joe in a New Hampshire Court, Corvette Jimmy would not even be allowed to tell a judge or jury about Big Truck Joe’s NOLO plea to the criminal Reckless Conduct charge in criminal court. See New Hampshire Rule of Evidence 410(a)(2) – Seriously, you can Google it very easily.

Please don’t take too much comfort in the security of entering a NOLO plea, however. It is not uncommon for victims of crimes to sue defendants in civil court, even after the defendant won a NOT GUILTY verdict in criminal court. Can you say, “Hello OJ Simpson!” Remember, in the 90’s OJ Simpson was found not guilty of two murders, but a few years later he was successfully sued for millions of dollars by the murder victims’ families for Wrongful Death. Many legal commentators claim that the financial burdens from that very civil judgment are what caused OJ Simpson to snap, go on a rampage in a casino with a pistol, and landed him ten or so years in prison.

Whatever you do, do not rush into a GUILTY or NOLO plea of any kind without first talking to a lawyer. Once that plea goes on record, it is very hard to undo it. Let’s start your case with a NOT GUILTY plea and buy yourself some time to make sure you are getting the best result possible before you sign your life away. Even the most minor of arrests, accusations, and even traffic citations can carry shockingly bad and unforeseen consequences such as indefinite driving suspension, extended jail sentences, or deportation (for non-citizens) to name a few.

If you are charged with a crime and you are not sure what to do or how to plead, call us at Osborne Law and Attorney Mark Osborne will be happy to discuss all of your options with you.