An Alford plea and a No Contest plea (Nolo) are both equivalents to a guilty plea. However, some distinctions between the three pleas do exist and they can be very significant for the defendant. Understanding the exact nature of each plea is an important requirement for any person charged with a crime who is considering a negotiated disposition.
At Stechschulte Nell, we ensure that every client thoroughly understands their options as their case moves through the criminal courts, whether in the state or the federal judicial system. Every person charged with a crime has the constitutional right to control important decisions relating to their defense. This blog post explains the difference between a plea of guilty, a plea of Nolo, and an Alford plea.
What Is an Alford Plea?
An Alford Plea is a hybrid plea that was approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970). The defendant in that case was indicted for a capital crime, first-degree murder. He was facing the death penalty. But the defendant protested his innocence and insisted that he would not admit to killing someone he did not kill. The prosecutor made an offer to Alford: If you plead guilty, you will get 30 years in prison and avoid the death penalty, and you don’t have to admit you killed the victim.
The judge accepted Alford’s guilty plea and did not require Alford to admit he committed the murder.
Later, Alford filed for post-conviction relief claiming his guilty plea was not voluntary, and that he only plead guilty to avoid the death penalty.
In ruling against Alford, the U.S. Supreme Court held:
“An individual accused of crime may voluntarily, knowingly, and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even if he is unwilling or unable to admit his participation in the acts constituting the crime.”
The Court cited its earlier case Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969) in which it found plea is legal if it “represents a voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternative courses of action open to the defendant.”
It’s important to note that there was substantial evidence supporting Alford’s guilt. The court found that it could accept a guilty plea from a person who still denied committing the crime but against whom there were reasonable grounds to find a “factual basis for the guilty plea.”
Some courts will accept an Alford guilty plea from a defendant, but they are not required to do so. The court can insist the defendant admit the facts if they want to plead guilty or nolo contendere.
In practice, Alford pleas are rare. An Alford plea could be considered when a defendant denies they committed the crime, but they are not willing to risk going to trial and possibly being sentenced more harshly if convicted. Alford pleas are a way of declaring, “I’m not guilty, but I’m not going to risk being buried in prison if found guilty at trial.” Experienced criminal defense lawyers can negotiate more lenient sentences in Alford cases than would follow a guilty verdict at trial.
Learn More > Plea or Go to Trial? Who Decides?
What’s the difference between an Alford Plea, a Nolo Plea, and a Guilty Plea?
Few people confuse a guilty plea with a not-guilty plea. They both have clear and unmistakable meanings.
While every defendant usually enters a not guilty plea at their first appearance or arraignment, that plea is made to protect the defendant’s rights while their attorney investigates the facts and the law and prepares the defense with the client. Later, as the case moves through the criminal courts, many clients change their plea to take advantage of a “plea bargain” negotiated between their lawyer and the prosecutor.
But every client has the right to maintain their plea of not guilty and demand a trial at which the prosecution would need to prove the accused’s guilt to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Changing a plea from not guilty to an alternative is entirely the choice of the defendant.
But Change Your Plea to What? Nolo? Guilty? or Alford?
Let’s look at each of these three optional pleas separately.
Guilty — A guilty plea is an admission that the facts alleged are true. They represent the defendant’s agreement that they did commit the crime charged. Even when a defendant offers a guilty plea to a court, the judge cannot accept the plea unless they find that there is a factual basis for the plea.
In other words, if the judge is not satisfied that the defendant committed all the acts necessary to constitute the particular crime charged in the indictment, it is a reversible error for the judge to accept the guilty plea.
Nolo — A nolo plea is a common reference to a plea of “nolo contendere,” the Latin phrase which means “I do not contest.” By entering a nolo plea, the defendant is offering a plea that is equivalent to a guilty plea, but they are not technically admitting to the facts alleged by the prosecution.
NOTE: In Florida, a person’s nolo plea may not be used against them in a civil case. A guilty plea can be used by the opposing party to impeach the testimony of the person who pleaded guilty or was found guilty by a judge or jury.
What Must a Court Find When a Defendant Changes Their Plea?
Before any court can accept a guilty plea, a nolo plea, or any kind of Alford plea, the court must ensure that the defendant’s plea is
- The defendant understands the nature of the charges and the consequences of their plea,
- There is a factual basis for the crime.
Even when an Alford plea is offered, the court must be satisfied that there is a factual basis for the plea despite the defendant’s wish to plead guilty without admitting the facts. No court would accept an Alford guilty or an Alford nolo plea unless evidence exists to support the claim that the defendant is guilty. Theoretically, no substantial evidence could exist to support an innocent person’s guilty plea.
Learn More > What Are the Types of Pleas in a Criminal Case?
Experienced Federal Defense
The only real assurance that an innocent person has that their rights will be respected and fought for is getting a skilled and experienced criminal defense lawyer to represent them.