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Understanding a no-contest vs. Alford plea

On Behalf of | May 10, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

Anyone facing a criminal charge must attend an arraignment, where they will hear the charges against them and submit a plea. In cases where the defendant refuses to admit guilt and maintains their innocence despite the court’s strong evidence, the defendant may enter a special plea.

Alford and no-contest pleas in South Carolina are functionally an admission of guilt, but they are also used to insist that the defendant is innocent. So, why do people enter these pleas, and how are they different?

What is an Alford plea?

The Alford plea originates from the North Carolina v. Alford case, where Henry Alford faced a first-degree murder charge and a potential death penalty sentence. Alford insisted that he was innocent despite the court’s strong evidence against him. He pled guilty to avoid the death penalty, and the court sentenced Alford to 30 years in jail instead.

An Alford plea is functionally equivalent to a guilty plea, except the defendant maintains their innocence and does not want to risk going to trial. Typically, a defendant will only enter an Alford plea if the arraignment will likely result in a conviction. The plea helps the defendant avoid a trial where they might receive a harsher sentence.

What is a no-contest plea?

A defendant who enters a no-contest plea, also known as nolo contendere, accepts the charges but refuses to admit or deny guilt. The court will still treat a no-contest plea as an admission of guilt but may hand down a less harsh sentence.

A no-contest plea forfeits the defendant’s right to a trial by jury. Because there is no factual acknowledgment of guilt, a no-contest plea cannot be utilized as evidence in civil actions. In South Carolina, a no-contest plea may only apply to a misdemeanor offense and with the court’s consent.

The court will only accept a no-contest or an Alford plea if the judge allows the defendant to enter them. However, entering either plea may still result in a criminal record and accompanying jail sentence. A lawyer may be able to help the accused negotiate a lighter sentence and determine if entering a plea is beneficial, especially if the defendant is innocent.