When charged with a crime in Virginia, the first thing you may be asked is how you want to plead.
This is typically early in the court process, and virtually everyone has seen a depiction of someone entering a plea of ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’ There are also a few less familiar options. These are ‘no contest’ or ‘Alford’ pleas.
Broadly, these allow you the benefit of maintaining your innocence or lack of responsibility, while simultaneously accepting punishment. There are various scenarios where such a plea would make sense. But these protections are limited in Virginia.
If you are charged with a crime in Virginia, it is important to discuss all your options and what plea is best with an experienced Roanoke criminal defense attorney.
Virginia No-Contest Pleas
Pleading no contest is an alternative to a guilty or not guilty plea. The no-contest plea is similar to pleading guilty–but with some advantages.
Also known by its Latin translation, “nolo contendere,” a no-contest plea means that you submit to criminal punishment, but you neither deny nor admit that you committed the crime. In some jurisdictions, a no-contest plea can protect you from civil liability. But this is not the case in Virginia.
Around ninety percent of criminal cases end in a plea agreement. Most of the time, defendants plead guilty as opposed to entering an alternative plea. According to a 2000 Department of Justice study, around 17 % of state criminal court defendants and 5 % of federal defendants submitted a no contest or an Alford plea. Keep in mind that federal judges are much less likely to accept an alternative plea than a state court judge.
VA No Contest Pleas: Limited Protection
A Virginia judge may be willing to accept a no-contest plea. However, it will not afford you the same advantages it does in other states.
When you plead no contest, you do not admit responsibility for the acts in question. In most states, this means that your no contest plea cannot be used as evidence of liability in a civil case.
For instance, imagine that you crash your car while speeding and cause an injury. If you plead guilty to reckless driving, the injured party could use your guilty plea as evidence that you admitted to being at fault. This can be used against you in civil court. A plea of no contest, on the other hand, contains no admission. And in most states, this is not admissible in civil proceedings.
However, Virginia is among the minority that allows no contest pleas in civil cases, but not as direct admissions. This is a fine distinction, but it essentially permits no contest pleas to be used in related civil proceedings.
So, if the person injured in the car accident sues you in Virginia, they can use the fact that you previously entered a plea of no contest, and argue that you were responsible for their injuries. This rule can be found at section 8.01-418 of the Virginia Code.
No Contest Vs. Alford Pleas
A no-contest plea is similar to an Alford plea because both involve submitting to criminal punishment without entering an admission of guilt into the record. However, there is a subtle difference between them.
With a no-contest plea, you neither admit nor deny wrongdoing. But with an Alford plea, you are claiming innocence while accepting the criminal punishment.
This plea got its name from a famous murder case in which the defendant, Henry Alford, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder because he knew that if he stood trial for first-degree murder, he faced a substantial risk of a conviction and a death sentence. As a result, he pleaded guilty only because it was in his best interest to do so. He still maintained his innocence for the crime.
To be clear, an Alford plea means admitting that the prosecutor has enough evidence to prove your guilt–all while maintaining that you are actually innocent.
Pros & Cons:How are they Punished
Just like a no-contest plea, the court will treat you as guilty when you enter an Alford plea. The court will enter a conviction against you, and the judge will issue a sentence.
What an Alford plea offers–and what a no contest plea does not–is the opportunity to state on the record that you maintain your innocence. With a no-contest plea, you neither deny nor assert your innocence.
When you plead guilty, you are accepting responsibility, which some judges view as the first step towards rehabilitation. In some circumstances, this could mean a lenient sentence. But if you enter an Alford plea and insist that you are innocent, a judge may decide to “punish” you for your lack of remorse by giving you the harshest sentence possible.
Should I Plead No Contest?
You are always considered innocent until proven guilty. But how you decide to plead is an incredibly important and often life-altering decision.
You should speak with an experienced criminal defense lawyer who is familiar with your case before deciding. A plea may be in your best interest, but you should always consider fighting your charges.
When you enter a no contest plea, you are giving up:
- Your right to appeal
- The right to a speedy and public trial by a jury
- The right to see, hear,and cross-examine all of the witnesses
The only sure way to guarantee your freedom, enjoy your rights, and uphold your reputation is to obtain an acquittal or the dismissal of your charges.
Regardless of your decision, the Virginia courts cannot interfere. No contest pleas are very common in state court, but less so in federal court. Alford pleas are unusual in both jurisdictions.
Seek Legal Advice Before Any Plea
At Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico, our Roanoke criminal defense attorneys can help you choose and execute a sound legal strategy for dealing with your criminal charges. We will carefully review the evidence and assist you in making the choices that will give you an optimal case outcome.
No matter what, you should speak with an attorney before accepting any plea agreement involving either a no contest or Alford plea.