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What is "nolo contendere" in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, a criminal defendant may enter a plea of guilty, not guilty or, at the discretion of the court, "nolo contendere". The latter is a Latin phrase that translates to "it is not contested." Although these types of pleas are used infrequently, they can be useful in situations in which a criminal defendant may face civil or administrative claims due to the same actions that gave rise to the criminal charges. While they will not be appropriate - or allowed - in most cases, an experienced criminal defense lawyer can help a defendant understand how to request such a plea and what the consequences may be.

Nolo contendere pleas in Pennsylvania are governed by Pennsylvania Code Rule 590. If a judge consents to a nolo contendere plea, the defendant is not contesting any of the charges that have been leveled. In so doing, the defendant is not admitting guilt. However, a nolo plea will result in the defendant's waiver of a trial and of the right to mount a defense to the charges. The judge will sentence the defendant based on charges presented.

From a practical, criminal defense perspective, a nolo plea has the same effect as a guilty plea. There is no trial, and the defendant is sentenced as if the crimes had been admitted. An important distinction, however, is that in a subsequent civil or administrative hearing, a nolo plea cannot be used as an admission of guilt, forcing the opposing side to put its facts to proof.

A variation of the nolo plea that is occasionally used in Pennsylvania - although a few other states refuse to recognize it - is the Alford plea. This type of plea is named for the U.S. Supreme Court holding in North Carolina v. Alford. In an Alford plea, the defendant maintains his or her innocence, but acknowledges that the government has sufficient evidence to convict. An Alford plea allows someone who maintains their innocence to bargain for a more favorable sentence than they might receive if convicted of a crime.

Source:, "Nolo contendere plea," accessed Apr. 24, 2018

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